Summary: Since Derek’s mother left his father, life has been a challenge. Uninterested in school, Derek drops out to get a job instead, but living with his father alone is only made bearable with the support of his best friend Gabi, and his online boyfriend, Ethan. When Ethan asks for a picture though, Derek sends one from before his substantial weight gain, thinking it won’t matter because Ethan will never know the difference. Ethan has plans to come to a wedding in town and meet Derek while he is there, and Derek must decide whether to come clean about his appearance for the sake of their relationship. Inspiration and courage come from a developing friendship at his new job as a caretaker, and Derek is finally able to be more honest with the people in his life.
Number of Pages: 106
Age Range: 14-16
Review: Who would have thought such a small book could have so much heart?
Right from the start, author Robin Stevenson drew me into her story and made me care about the characters. Starting a new job in a care facility, Derek is a strong young man with a gentle spirit who learns how to take care of physical needs but intuitively seems to know how to attend to his clients’ emotional needs.
And when he meets Aaliyah, a woman far too young to be in a nursing home, they connect. It’s like they recognize each other, and as a result despite not knowing each other for very long, they are perfect to be the agitators for change in each other’s lives. For Aaliyah, it’s about being encouraged not to shut out the love of her life just because her body is working differently now. And for Derek, it’s about trusting Ethan enough to be honest about his physical appearance.
I loved their connection, but I also loved Stevenson’s demonstration that sometimes the people who change our lives the most are those who only make a brief appearance in it.
Despite the fact he is only known through his emails, I also quite liked Ethan. His email at the end was wonderful, and I felt certain and happy that he and Derek would make an amazing couple when they finally meet in person. Best friend Gabi and her family are also very supportive characters, and were there for Derek when he needed them most.
Big Guy is a lovely choice for reluctant readers, and one I would highly recommend.
“I miss her like hell, but I half hope she doesn’t come back. At least one of us got away.” – Derek talking about his mother leaving from Big Guy by Robin Stevenson, page 2
“Francine warned me that some of the residents could be difficult. Just stay calm, she said. Talk slowly. Be aware that you may have to repeat the same information several times.
Repeating that I’m new doesn’t seem like a good idea.” – Derek reflecting on his job from Big Guy by Robin Stevenson, page 10
“‘Excuse me,’ I say. ‘I don’t think you get to call me a coward. Not after you just dumped your boyfriend for the same reason.’
Her eyes are daggers. ‘It’s not the same,’ she says, spitting the words out.
‘Your body’s not perfect. Neither is mine. So what’s the difference? If I’m a coward, so are you.’
‘You don’t understand anything,’ she says.
Implusively, I put my hand on her arm. ‘Maybe I understand more than you think.’
Aaliyah stares at me for a long minute, and I can see her dark eyes starting to shine with tears. She blinks them away and puts her hand over mine.
‘Maybe you do,’ she says, so softly that I have to lean close to hear her. ‘Maybe we’re both cowards.'” – Conversation between Derek and Aaliyah about being a coward from Big Guy by Robin Stevenson, page 80
Summary: Dex is a seventeen year-old disillusioned by life. With a step-brother who died of a heroin overdose, a father paralyzed by a botched suicide attempt, a mother who favours his step-father over him and a girlfriend who was abused as a child, Dex numbs his pain with liberal doses of the marijuana his father decided to grow. As the lines between reality and fantasy blur considerably, Dex’s filmmaker’s eye frames the story of his life as he sees fit, but eventually he reaches a point where even he can’t tell the difference anymore.
Number of Pages: 295
Age Range: 15-17
Review: If I were still in high school and I was tested on the plot of What is Real by Karen Rivers, I’m not confident I would pass. This is because Dex, the narrator, is unreliable at best, and at worst his perspective is much addled by his drug use. While a sympathetic character initially because of the sheer number of terrible events that have happened to him and his loved ones, Dex’s perspective is challenging to follow, and the reader can never be sure what is fact and what is fiction.
I may not have liked Dex, but Rivers deserves respect. Her whole novel is about a young man severely affected by grief on many fronts, and she skillfully allows her reader to experience the same confusion and altered state Dex does when he uses marijuana. Reality becomes a fluid concept for Dex, and for the reader by association. I can only imagine the type of research Rivers must have had to do to write so well as to make me feel like I was smoking along with Dex.
Assuming Dex’s characterization of her was accurate, my favourite character is Tanis. I’m not pleased Dex seemed to be attracted to her because of her perceived ‘brokeness,’ yet she is fascinating, smart and loyal to a fault. Also, I just loved the way her mind works.
I feel like I was watching Dex’s story unfold through a fog. I know generally what happened, but the specifics are blurry. After everything that had happened to him and to Tanis, I could see why Dex and his friends wanted to find a way to take control of their lives again except I didn’t quite understand how what they did brought that about. Or the part about Olivia. Or the mysteriously healing knee. Or numerous other aspects of the book, like Dex’s little sister.
What it comes down to is that What is Real is a hard to follow, mind-bending story without clear answers. By the end it is uncertain which parts of the tale really happened, but there is hope for the future as Dex seems willing to fight his addiction at last.
“His legs are new. His lungs are new. He’s alive.
Or at least not dead.
Is it the same thing?” – Dex from What is Real by Karen Rivers, pages 12-13
“I shrug because is it supposed to be heroic when you survive a jump you made by choice? I mean, come on. Give me a break. Maybe if you half died to cure cancer, people should be nice about it. But a failed suicide attempt doesn’t warrant applause.” – Dex from What is Real by Karen Rivers, page 49
“The truth was, I was only at ‘home’ when I was behind my camera. And without it, I was too light, like any minute I might just float up into the sky and never come down. I saw the whole world through that lens; it kept me just far enough away to be safe. And now that it was gone, it was like looking at everything through binoculars. The world was too big and there was too much of it.” – Dex from What is Real by Karen Rivers, page 66
“When you start to lie, it’s easy to lose track of what is what. Sometimes it’s impossible to know when you start. You think it’s just that one wall, with the door and the tunnel and then suddenly it’s a whole house, a whole city of tunnels and lies and none of it matters. You can’t keep tack because it’s not trackable. The tunnels don’t lead anywhere that you remember because you are busy remembering the lie.
That’s how it is.
I think I started when I was five, riding my bike down the street, a book taped to the handlebars.
Fiction was the first lie that made more sense to me than real life.” – Dex from What is Real by Karen Rivers, page 286
Summary: Sent to live with their grandmother on the coast of British Columbia after their father drowns, Maud and Polly are newly orphaned with secrets between them. It’s 1931 and taking care of one’s family in the midst of the Depression is a daunting task, but after living in poverty with their father, Maud and Polly are suddenly well taken care of with ample educational opportunities. In this new environment Maud flourishes, making friends and developing her own beliefs, while Polly has a great deal of trouble living with the secrets she has been encouraged to keep. When the truth of what actually happened comes out, the sisters will be affected in different ways, and neither will be the same.
Number of Pages: 261
Age Range: 11-13
Review: Just ten years old when her father dies, Polly’s world is turned upside down as she and her sister are moved from Manitoba to British Columbia. The move itself is just a physical representation of her inner turmoil, as Polly’s older sister Maud has encouraged her to forget their father and not to trust anyone with the truth about their father’s death.
Through a beautifully descriptive story, Kit Pearson details one girl’s growth from childhood adoration of a parent to when the pedestal crumbles and their flawed nature is revealed. For Polly, it’s a tough lesson that takes years for her to learn. When she is told her father was a thief she remains an ardent believer in his innocence until confronted with the surprising truth. Because she’s still a child, it’s hard for her to imagine he could have lied to her, but Pearson contrasts Polly’s experience with Maud’s, whose teenage perspective allows her to question and make up her own mind about their father’s guilt.
This story of two sisters coming to terms with the secrets of their lives is set against the backdrop of the Depression in the 1930s. Going from rags to riches, Maud and Polly find themselves on a island in a prosperous household, a sharp contrast to their previous lives. Surrounded by loving relatives, Polly becomes happy where she is while Maud is happy at boarding school. While the choices of their father were shameful at times, it becomes clear he had his daughters’ best interests at heart.
I hope to read And Nothing But the Truth, The Whole Truth‘s sequel shortly, because Pearson ends her book with some suspense. After growing so comfortable with her grandmother on the island, will Polly adjust well to boarding school? How will Maud do at university with her dreams of becoming a female lawyer in the 1930s? There is more conflict in the works, and I want to know how things turn out.
Pearson’s story is perhaps barely teen, but I think may be appreciated most by adults as it examines the complexity of a child’s changing perspective in authentic way.
“What are heavy? Sea-sand and sorrow;
What are brief? Today and tomorrow;
What are frail? Spring blossoms and youth;
What are deep? The ocean and truth.” – Quote by Christina Rossetti from The Whole Truth by Kit Pearson
“After the toasts were finished Polly took her glass of champagne to a chair, so she could remove her pinchy shoes. She wriggled her freed toes and took another swallow of the sweet, fizzy drink. It made the inside of her nose tickle, but it was so delicious! And it seemed to loosen her thoughts, as if they were singing birds zooming around her head.” – Polly from The Whole Truth by Kit Pearson, page 258
“The truth – the whole truth, at last – was as deep as the sea around her. People were complicated. Daddy wasn’t totally good, after all. Neither was Noni, neither was Maud. And Alice, it turned out, wasn’t totally bad. She, Polly, was complicated too. That meant she could love Daddy even though he had disappointed her.” – Polly from The Whole Truth by Kit Pearson, page 261
Summary: Living as a guest of war in Canada with her little brother Gavin during World War II, Norah Stoakes is a thirteen year-old girl on the cusp of womanhood. Gairloch, a Muskoka cottage, is their home for the summer, and along with guardians Aunt Florence and Aunt Mary, Gavin and Norah are absorbed into the Drummond clan. But after three years away from her home in England and her family, Norah is now a teenager dealing with a changing body and emotions. This summer marks her departure from childhood, her first experience with romantic love and her realisation that in the face of war, being a grown up means making tough decisions.
Number of Pages: 219
Age Range: 12-14
Review: I have lost track of how many times I have read Kit Pearson’s Looking at the Moon. While it is the middle book in the Guests of War trilogy, it is the book I read first, and though it is connected to the others as it is a mere piece of the story of Norah and Gavin, it has the ability to stand alone.
Through Norah’s thirteenth summer Pearson creates a vivid and honest snapshot of what life as a teenage girl is like. Norah is putting aside childhood activities in favour of grown-up ones, and finds herself falling in love with Andrew, the nineteen year-old favoured young man of the Drummond clan. Despite their six year age gap and no interest in anything other than friendship on Andrew’s part, Norah’s love transforms her. Suddenly the love songs on the radio make sense, and Norah begins to dream about a future with Andrew where she helps him become a dedicated war hero. The tale of Norah falling in love for the first time just as her body is beginning to mature is poignant and wistful, capturing the intricacies and complexity of the developing female heart with precision.
But there is also so much more going on in the story. Norah begins to realise that going home to England after the war may be her dream while is simultaneously Gavin’s nightmare. After three years together with Norah and Gavin the whole Drummond clan is reluctant to think about having to send them back, even though everyone wants the war to end. And the cost of the war is getting higher and higher as gas is rationed and lives are lost.
When it comes to a balanced view about the war, it is Aunt Catherine’s opinion that I pay attention to. With all the pressure to do one’s duty and to ‘beat Hitler’ in society and in the Drummond clan, Aunt Catherine is the voice of reason as she seems to be the only one who examines the losses they’ve all suffered as a result of the fighting. Indeed, her awareness about the senselessness of war even extends to empathy for the Germans. Combined with her intense love of books, Aunt Catherine is easily my favourite character.
Contrasting the practicality of Norah’s physical and emotional development is Andrew’s story. Yes, he is nineteen and therefore should be considered a grown-up, but Looking at the Moon is as much his coming-of-age story as it is Norah’s. Born at the wrong time, Andrew is faced with an impossible choice, go to war as everyone expects even though he knows the killing has the potential to break him, or break away from the family that has provided him with love and safety over the years, pursue his dream of acting and risk getting branded a coward. I can still remember the shock I felt when Andrew made his decision the first time I read Pearson’s book, and today even though I knew what was coming it hit me anew.
By telling Andrew’s story as well, albeit through Norah’s love goggles, Pearson examines the personal conflict Andrew and others like him must tackle simply because of age and societal expectations. It’s not fair, and the cost of war is much, much too high for all involved, but there is also the sense of necessity. The foe must be defeated, the vulnerable defended, and those who have the courage to do so are heroes. But as Pearson shows us, it is infinitely more complex than that, and Andrew is caught up in it.
After all these years, that complexity is one aspect of what keeps me re-reading time and time again. I love the characters, the endearing Drummond relationships, and the setting, historical and geographical. Most of all though, I love how Looking at the Moon is just a piece of a larger story – the impact of World War II on the children who were sent away and ended up maturing in a foreign country without their parents. All three Guests of War books are Canadian classics, but Looking at the Moon will always be my favourite part.
“I whispered, ‘I am too young,’
And then, ‘I am old enough';
Wherefore I threw a penny
To find out if I might love.
O love is the crooked thing,
There is nobody wise enough
To find out all that is in it,
For he would be thinking of love
Till the stars had run away
And the shadows eaten the moon.
Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny,
One cannot begin it too soon.”
– W.B. YEATS – quote from W.B. Yeats from Looking at the Moon by Kit Pearson
“‘Doesn’t it make you feel safe to know you have enough to read? If I didn’t always have a book waiting, I’d panic.'” – Aunt Catherine from Looking at the Moon by Kit Pearson, page 30
“Andrew sighed. ‘My grandparents were easy to take, but I think my mother was glad to get away from the rest of the family when she married again. Yet there’s something endearing about all of them, too. When I’m here I feel so … safe. As if nothing has changed and nothing else in the world – the war especially – exists. I guess that’s why I have to come back once in a while.” – Andrew talking to Norah from Looking at the Moon by Kit Pearson, pages 60-61
“Aunt Catherine’s lined faced looked tired. ‘I lost a father, a brother and a nephew – Hugh – in wars, Norah. It’s a wicked waste.’
‘But we have to beat Hitler!’
‘I don’t know how to answer that, Norah. Yes, we have to beat him. But what a price we’re paying! Not just our side – think of what the German people are enduring. We’re bombing them just as heavily as they’ve been bombing Britain.’ She broke off a piece of wood angrily. ‘It’s all so senseless! Do you know what we called the last war? “The war to end all wars.” Huh!’
Then she sighed. ‘Poor Andrew. He was born at the wrong time. Let’s just hope your little brother will be luckier.'” – Conversation between Aunt Catherine and Norah about the war from Looking at the Moon by Kit Pearson, pages 105-106
“One after another the velvety melodies floated out to her: ‘Blue Moon,’ ‘Moonlight Serenade,’ and the whirling crescendo of ‘In the Mood.’ Again and again someone put on ‘You’ll Never Know.’ That’s our song Norah decided. Most of the songs were about moons and dreams and parting and they all had a wistful edge to them. Being a grown-up seemed to be one endless love scene where someone was in love and the other had left or didn’t return the love.” – Norah from Looking at the Moon by Kit Pearson, page 150
“Aunt Mary pulled her over for a hug. ‘Oh, Norah, you’re so young – very young! This is just the beginning! I’m not going to say you only have a crush. I remember feeling the same way about one of my teachers – love is just as real at any age. But I promise you, you will get over it – and love someone else in time, someone who will love you back.'” – Aunt Mary talking to Norah from Looking at the Moon by Kit Pearson, page 200
Summary: Natalie is a newly fifteen year-old girl who is about to have a life-changing summer. With plans to take an intensive summer dance course with her friends, those plans go askew when attentions from Kevin, her best friend Sasha’s older brother, alienate Natalie from her friends. Before she knows it, Natalie is involved in a relationship she doesn’t fully understand, crossing physical boundaries in the moment she later regrets. Unable to take the flak from her dance class friends and drawn to a different type of dance anyway, Natalie finds herself taking more chances with her talent. As Natalie waffles between the worlds of childhood and adulthood, dancing provides her with a place to belong and mature.
Number of Pages: 217
Age Range: 15-17
Review: Here’s what I love about Leap by Jodi Lundgren. While some teen fiction books are about a teen’s definitive coming-of-age experience, Natalie’s road to adulthood is not so clear cut. There are challenges and setbacks, times when she is vastly more mature than her fifteen years and others when she seems like a child. Because that’s usually the way growing up is, something that happens in fits and starts.
It’s messy and complicated, and Natalie quickly realises that. Getting involved with Kevin, a nineteen year-old, puts her in a situation beyond what she can handle. In less than a month Natalie goes from her first kiss to losing her virginity, and the messages her body is sending her are conflicting with those from her mind which tells her she is not ready.
Add to that the reaction of Kevin’s younger sister Sasha, who even before she knows Natalie and Kevin have slept together labels her a slut for even going on a date with him. Combined with a rocky relationship with her father, the big secret Natalie finds out her mother is keeping, and it is easy to see why Natalie’s resolve when it comes to Kevin crumbles easily, because she feels a connection with him she’s never experienced before.
The beautiful part is how Natalie finds her sense of self through her dancing. There it isn’t about relationships, parents or secrets, it’s only about expressing herself through the use of movement in a wholly authentic way. I loved Lundgren’s detailed exploration of Natalie’s growth as a dancer, moving from traditional jazz to modern techniques. Through her dancing she finds friends and a place where she can be herself just as she is. I liked the thought Lundgren presents near the end about Natalie teaching her own dance classes in the future, because she is a talented dancer but also a wonderful instructor.
Natalie’s experience is raw and conflicted at times which made me love her as a character because I though Lundgren truly captured something real through her reactions. My favourite character though has to be Natalie’s younger sister Paige. Just ten years old, she’s not quite dealing with hormones yet and is still a child, and the relationship between the two sisters is such that sometimes Paige can pull Natalie back into being a child as well. She was just great.
If you pick Leap apart, it’s a little over-the-top and I was skeptical at times about how everything came together and the over-dramatization of certain characters. But Leap‘s true strength lies in its realistic themes of the ups and downs of becoming an adult: the mistakes made, the need for belonging and good role models, and finding the self-esteem needed to be confident in the choices you make as you mature. In that sense, Lundgren has nailed it.
“The sky blazed fuchsia. The disc of sun slipped, second by second, behind purple hills on the horizon. Clouds sponged the light and the sky shimmered peach, pink, yellow, and even green. A plume of airplane exhaust twisted vertically, like a tornado. With every breath, the colors changed. The brilliance faded, slowly, and left us standing in the dark.” – from Leap by Jodi Lundgren, page 59
“She uses books the way some people use illicit substances. Is there a support group for that? ‘Hi, my name is Denise and I’m a recovering bookworm.'” – Natalie talking about her mom’s obsession with books from Leap by Jodi Lundgren, page 82
“This morning I acted like nothing happened. I’m walking around under a veil. This must be what they call denial. It means things are too screwed up to deal with so you pretend they never happened, that you didn’t notice. You gloss over the facts with little half-truths like ‘Sasha’s mom was sick.’ You avoid looking each other in the eye because you’re both hiding what you know. It deadens you. Layers of something like gel separate us. All we’re left with are secrets and shame.” – Natalie from Leap by Jodi Lundgren, page 89
“It sucks to be fifteen! This has got to be the worst possible age in life. We have adult experiences, adult responsibilities, adult worries, but a kid’s resources. We need support. We need role models. We need attention and love. Sometimes we even need supervision! But most adults can’t even take care of themselves. They just give little kids the illusion that they’re in control. At fifteen, you see through it and discover you’re on your own.” – Natalie from Leap by Jodi Lundgren, page 118
Summary: When her father is diagnosed with Huntington’s Chorea, Cassidy learns from her research that it’s a degenerative genetic illness she stands a 50% chance of inheriting herself. But when she expresses this concern to her parents, Cassidy learns good news and bad news. The good news is she has no chance of inheriting her father’s disease. The bad news is her biological father is actually an anonymous sperm donor, and her parents have been keeping the true nature of her conception a secret for her whole life. Plunged into self-doubt, questioning who she is and everything she knows about herself, Cassidy turns to her boyfriend Jason for reassurance and a place of belonging, only to find missing the source of one half of her DNA seeps into every aspect of her life whether she wants it to or not.
Number of Pages: 237
Age Range: 15-17
Review: Cassidy is a sixteen year-old whose world is about to fall apart. One day her biggest problem is having too much money and trying to convince her boyfriend they should wait to have sex, and the next her father is diagnosed with Huntington’s Chorea and her parents reveal a secret they’ve been keeping from her for years.
Finding Cassidy by Laura Langston could have easily gone awry. With the serious theme of a devastating, terminal illness on top of lies from parental figures, questions of identity and losing one’s virginity, I was impressed with Langston’s ability to juggle everything while maintaining believability and not being too heavy handed.
What I loved best was the fact that though there will be real and serious consequences to not knowing who her biological father is in the future, Cassidy comes to a place where she can accept what her family has been telling her from the start – that blood doesn’t matter. Choosing to love someone does. Belonging lies in sticking together, and being there for someone time and time again. When Cassidy lets this realisation in at last, it allows her to be there for Frank, her ‘adopted’ father, as Huntington’s Chorea begins to take a hold of his life.
I wonder what Cassidy’s future will be like, whether she will discover half siblings and eventually win the right to find out her biological father’s name. Langston’s novel is a timely and thoughtful exploration about the contrast of rights between adopted children and those conceived via donated sperm.
Cassidy’s own journey at times feels reactive and over-the-top, but Langston’s writing allowed me to get inside Cassidy’s head and understand what it would feel like to have the bottom suddenly fall out of her life. What would it be like not to know if the person you meet on the street could be your father? You’d always be wondering, questioning – something Langston portrays very well through Cassidy’s experience. Combined with the normal exploration of identity as well as the natural conflicts with parents that happen during the teen years, and I can easily see why Cassidy cut up all her photo albums.
I was immediately caught up in her struggles and relationships and didn’t want to put the book down when it was done. I especially loved the little facts about birds that started each chapter from a grade four project Cassidy did.
Finding Cassidy is simply a well-written, intriguing read that I would recommend to mid to older teen readers.
“‘Telling him would be the kind thing to do.’ Big Mac smoothed down his thin, white hair. Seconds later, it sprang back into its usually upright tufts. ‘You know, Dee Dee Bird,’ he finally said, ‘Frank couldn’t be any more my son if her were my own flesh and blood. And you’re as much my grandchild as Colleen’s kids are.’
‘Do you really believe that?’
‘I don’t believe that. I know that.'” – Conversation between Big Mac and Cassidy about his feelings toward his adopted son from Finding Cassidy from Laura Langston, page 141
“‘You’re my granddaughter. You’re Grace and Frank’s daughter. Belonging is about love, not genetics.’ Big Mac paused. When I didn’t respond, he said, ‘Here’s something else to think about. That donor might be your father, but he’s not your dad. You’re already got one of those.’ His knees cracked as he pulled himself out of the chair. ‘And consider yourself lucky. Dee Dee Bird, because he’s the finest dad I’ve ever had the privilege to know.'” – Big Mac tries to give Cassidy a pep talk about where she really belongs from Finding Cassidy by Laura Langston, page 142
“Call me stupid, call me irrational – Lord knows, Jason had called me everything else – but it would have been easier if Frank had gotten mad about the search. Or had opposed my DNA plan. I could’ve gotten mad right back. We could have yelled at each other, and I would have been upset, and then I could have gone off and found something else to cut up.
Instead I felt bad because Frank MacLaughlin wasn’t my real dad. And I wanted him to be – even though I would have been at risk of getting Huntington’s.
At least then I would have belonged to him. And he would have belonged to me.
And dying is way easier to face when you belong to someone.” – Cassidy from Finding Cassidy by Laura Langston, page 190
“When you gave blood to sustain life, you had to tell them everything. When you gave sperm to start life, you were allowed to tell them nothing?” – Cassidy from Finding Cassidy by Laura Langston, page 214