by Glen Huser
ISBN: 0888995784

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A Review of: Stitches
by Olga Stein

Stitches, this year's Governor General's Literary Award winner in the category of text for young readers, is a delight. Generally, it is hard for me to focus on a kids' book without first imagining that I'm reading it to someone young enough to be interested. No need for such projection in this case. I ploughed through the book in one sitting and enjoyed the read.
The writing is definitely good. It may not be great literature, but it is intelligent, engaging, and brings the characters to life no less perceptively than a book intended for adult readers. Nor are the themes the standard children's fare. Travis, the first-person narrator and the novel's protagonist isn't a typical boy. He likes to sew, decorate fabric, and make costumes for his collection of dolls and puppets. We're made to understand that he stands out in other ways too, for he is the target of a threesome of young bullies. Being different in a small town is a lonesome business, and Travis does find himself on his own until he is befriended by Chantelle, a sympathetic class mate who is different in her own way.
Tiny Chantelle has a number of congenital problems. She has a scar and a malformed upper lip, her growth is stunted, she has delicate bones and she limps when she walks. On the other hand, she is bright, sensitive, shares Travis's interests in puppetry and theatre, and is a caring, loving and lovable friend.
Travis and Chantelle have other things in common. They are both from the wrong side of the tracks. Travis lives in a trailor park with his kind, verbally- (and occasionally physically) abused aunt and her children. His mother, a country and western singer, visits between gigs. Life in the trailer home isn't easy, but not intolerable, and Travis is neither neglected nor unhappy.
Chantelle's family life isn't rosy either. Her father has been ill for as long as she can remember. Her mother is a strange, slightly distracted woman, and her much older brothers are motorbike-riding, beer-guzzling, rowdy fellows with problems of their own. But so that the reader doesn't get the wrong impression, Huser makes it amply clear that Chantelle is treated kindly by her family members. Love and nurturing can be present in all sorts of homes, he seems to be saying.
Over a period of three years, Travis and Chantelle become close, doing school projects together, celebrating birthdays, and helping one another in times of crisis. Various teachers, impressed by the duo's, and especially Travis's talent, encourage their interests in theatre, puppetry and costume and stage design. In grade nine, they are asked to stage a puppet rendition of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream for the end-of-year show. The author does an excellent job of conveying the kids' burgeoning appreciation for Shakespeare, their efforts to understand the play and the work they take on in order to do justice to the splendors of Shakespeare's world of fairies.
Other kids with artistic interests eventually gravitate towards Shantelle and Travis. Differences' become less of a consideration as children mature and begin to place higher value on intelligence and creative abilities in others. However, Travis continues to be victimized by the three boys who openly call him "fag", "pansy", and "fairy". By grade nine, the boys have become full blown hooligans. Their leader, Shon Docker , is a definite threat to everyone around him, including his girlfriend, but aspecially to Travis. Stitches culminates with Travis's terrifying abduction by the three following the grade nine graduation party, and some serious injuries. He is saved by Chantelle's motorcycling brothers.
Huser portrays characters with skill, from those in the centre of the story to those on its margins. His treatment of Travis's non-boyish' interests is sensitive, just detailed enough for young readers (for instance, Travis feelings for Malcom McTavish are mentioned but not dwelled on). This is ground-breaking in some ways, as mainstream kids' literature has not, as far as I'm aware, addressed same-sex inclinations in adolescent protagonists. It's about time.
I can easily recommend Stitches for its writing and serious themes. The only criticism I would make is that Glen Huser packs too much of hard reality into his book. Tackling homophobia, bullying, spousal abuse, economic hardship, and sickness and death in one book occasionally comes across as overkill-but only occasionally.

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