How many kids have spent time at the edge of a crowd looking in? In Sparks by Graham McNamee and A Company of Fools by Deborah Ellis, two young protagonists are thrown from the comfortable sidelines into very different but equally challenging social situations.
In McNamee's novel, Todd Foster never knows if his ideas are stupid unless somebody else tells him. He is in a regular grade 5 class after spending the previous year in Special Needs. His friend Eva, who literally sees the world through different-coloured glasses, has not made the leap with him. As Todd tries to fit in, and even get a passing grade, he either ignores or yells at Eva¨the only person with whom he can laugh and have fun¨because she can never belong to his new social order.
Names are important in this book¨names that exclude people and names that soothe. Todd is called Retardo, Brain-Dead, and Gump by his classmates; Melonhead by his mean sister Christie; Shaggy by his Dad; and Wild Thing by his Mom. He is continually trying to resolve who he is through other people, and he will eat anything to try to grow a brain. Not until Todd finds his "smart sparks" does he value his strengths¨his imagination and his friendship with Eva. Only then does he realize who he is, rather than relying on others to define him.
McNamee has created a clear, true voice in Todd Foster. The reader is there with Todd throughout the story, and his actions and motivations are believable. The short chapters and simple sentence structure contribute to the easy flow of the narrative, and the line drawings add a light touch. Anyone who has been marginalized, or as Todd puts it, anyone who has felt as insignificant as an ant, will cheer for Todd. This is an ideal book for readers aged 8 to 11.
A Company of Fools is a longer, more challenging read, best suited for 10 to 14 year-olds. In 14th century France, Henri is a sickly choirboy who avoids the stronger, rougher choirboys of the abbey. When Micah arrives, Henri is drawn into a rollicking friendship that he could have never imagined, until the Plague descends on nearby Paris. This book is Henri's secret first-person account of the best and worst moments of his life. Readers will be amazed and horrified by this intimate chronicle of true friendship, laughter, and the smell of Death.
Micah is a street urchin with an angelic voice and a gift for playing tricks and breaking rules. Because of Micah, Henri behaves as he would never have otherwise¨jumping into the cesspit, spying on the monks, and singing rowdy street songs. When the Plague threatens to break the spirit of the people of Paris, Henri and Micah join a few monks in the Company of Fools. Together, they set out to cheer the suffering people with very un-monklike performances. Until the people, and Micah, begin to believe that Micah can cure victims of the Plague, and Micah's ego grows too large.
Micah's friendship first pulls Henri out of himself, and Henri questions whether he should become something other than a monk. In writing his chronicle, he admits that he has considered becoming a scholar, a sea captain like his father, or a chronicler to kings. In the end, Henri decides which side of the abbey wall he wants to be on, even when Micah leaves the abbey far behind.
Ellis's characters are richly developed, and the desire to know what happens to Micah and Henri will pull readers along. The plot spans three years, but Ellis manages to show all the key scenes with sharp dialogue and detailed action. Readers will become familiar with religious life in the abbey, the gruesome horrors of the Plague, and how superstition outmatched scientific knowledge during the 14th century. The abbey diagram, historical note, Plague map, and glossary further clarify the historical setting.
Todd and Henri both struggle to find out who they are, where they fit in, and how to relate to other people. Each discovers his strengths¨Todd his imagination and Henri the power of his words. Laughter and friendship create joy even in the face of great misery, and the importance of compassion toward others is the lesson in both of these compelling novels.
Karen Krossing is a Toronto-based children's book writer.