Review of Sweethearts

Sweethearts (2009)

By Sara Zarr

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Disclaimer: this novel contains some “implied” sexual encounters (though overall it’s pretty PG), as well as depicts physical and mental abuse. If you’re under 13, please check with your parents before reading.

The Story: During elementary school Jenna Vaughn’s childhood sweetheart, Cameron, disappears suddenly. Jenna hears rumours that Cameron has died, and finding no proof against these rumours, she believes them and mourns the loss of her best friend and only person who truly knew her. But Cameron mysteriously returns during Jenna’s senior year of high school, forcing her to confront a disturbing event they both shared, but have never spoken of, and compelling Jenna to determine who she really is.

What Wallace and I Think: I was largely underwhelmed by this novel. When Cameron does reappear, this results in a few page turning chapters because I was curious to find out what really happened to him, but otherwise the novel relies too heavy on shallow tensions that fail to add the urgency or drama the novel was striving for. Jenna is a difficult person to root for, for several reasons.

  1. First off, when Jenna knew Cameron in elementary school, she was unpopular and outcast with Cameron as her only friend. When Cameron disappears, and Jenna moves schools, she transforms herself into a popular girl, who by senior year has a close group of friends and a boyfriend. Jenna fears what will happen if her new friends discover what she was like in elementary school from Cameron. However, it is difficult to relate or believe this fear. I find it hard to believe that her friends of four years would stop hanging out with her, or think of her differently if they found out she didn’t have many friends, was teased, and was chubby in grade three. Why do I think this? BECAUSE IT HAPPENED IN GRADE THREE! I know it’s been a while since I was in high school, but if in grade twelve I found out my friend had been teased in elementary school and wasn’t very popular, I highly doubt I, or anyone for that matter, would respond with “What? You weren’t popular you’re whole life? Well, I can no longer be associated with you.” This fear of being “found out” by her friends is present through most of the text, and not much to my surprise, Jenna’s friends don’t care, at all, when they do find out, deflating whatever building tension there was.
  2. Jenna is very resentful of her mother. Until her mother remarried when Jenna was in Jr. High, it was just to two of them. Her mother put herself through nursing school while working a full-time job, leaving Jenna by herself a lot. I can understand that that would be tough on a kid, feeling like your mom isn’t around. But Jenna is now seventeen, and she is still angry at her now present mom for basically working hard to provide them with a different life. Jenna was alone a lot because her mom was putting herself through nursing school, so she could get a better job, and better provide for her daughter. You would think that a seventeen year old would at least be able to grasp this better than Jenna does, and cut her mom a little slack, and maybe even admire her for accomplishing so much as a single mother. Jenna’s inability to see beyond her own hurt undercuts her mom’s own accomplishment and struggle.
  3. When Cameron returns an unstable love triangle forms because Jenna has a boyfriend. The love triangle is unstable because Jenna is honest from the beginning that she doesn’t really have feelings for her boyfriend. So I continually found myself asking, as does one of Jenna’s girlfriends, WHY DON’T YOU JUST BREAK UP WITH YOUR BOYFRIEND (who Jenna doesn’t seem to like very much) AND JUST BE WITH CAMERON. Sorry for the all caps, but I found it very frustrating because, like my other two points, it seemed like a weak attempt to add drama to the novel.

Sweethearts wasn’t all deflated drama, and I will give props where they are due.

  1. Cameron’s personal story is much more heart wrenching than Jenna’s, and perhaps focusing more on him would have made for a better book. Cameron is a victim of child abuse, and the few scenes depicting his father are terrifying, and my heart did break for his and his siblings’ struggle. If you’re going to read this book, do it to meet Cameron.
  2. The depiction of Jenna’s stepfather is really beautiful and positive, which isn’t always the norm with step parents in children’s and YA literature. Alan, the stepfather, loves and supports Jenna, and is often the person Jenna chooses to go to first when she needs comfort. There’s a beautiful scene when Jenna finds herself unable to sleep at three am (I won’t spoil why), and wakes Alan with her crying. He comes into her room, and simply sits next to her with his hand on her ankle until her morning alarm goes off. Their relationship was one of the stronger points of the novel.

I would recommend the age range for this book to ages thirteen and older. I give Sweethearts a 3/5

Happy Birthday

Happy birthday to Hans Christian Andersen, born April 2nd, 1805

Andersen wrote over 160 fairytales (!), many of which are now houseold classics such as The Ugly Duckling, The Little Mermaid, The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Snow Queen (hello inspiration for Frozen), and The Princess and the Pea. My favorite? It has to be The Little Mermaid!

“But a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers so much more.”

Kay Nielson illustration

Kay Nielson illustration

What’s your favorite Andersen fairy tale?

Review of Migrant

Migrant (2011)

Written by Maxine Trottier, Art by Isabelle Arsenault

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The Story: Anna feels like a bird because her family moves north in the spring and south in the fall. Her Mennonite family lives in Mexico during the winter, and travels all the way up to Canada in the summer to work on farms harvesting fruit and vegetables. Anna often wonders what it would be like to stay in one place.

Maxine Trottier explains that people like Anna’s family helped to build Canada and the United States (and continue to), and that they live difficult lives. Often, because their first language is Low German, they cannot understand English or Spanish. The houses that are available for rent are shabby and expensive. There is no union to protect these migrant workers, and they are often not well received by employers or communities. Trottier argues that “We all need to remember just how our country was built,” (npg) and it can only be assumed that Trottier hopes to remind us of this history through the picturebook Migrant.

What Wallace and I Think: Migrant is an ideal example of how important paratext often is with picturebooks. Without the write-up on the hardcover flaps, and the short history lesson on the endpapers, few children or adult readers would know what the book is actually historically addressing. The picturebook’s text and images are filled with Anna comparing her life to various animals: she feels like a jack rabbit who live in abandoned burrows; she feels like a bee during the day; at night she is like a kitten snuggled under a single blanket with her sisters (For any teachers out there, this book could be a perfect tool in teaching simile, metaphor, and/or illustrated metaphor to students). In the main text there is no mention of her family being Mennonite, though they do wear traditional Mennonite clothing. Though Anna briefly explains her family moves from the south to north and back again (through the metaphor of her family being like geese), we are not told the south is Mexico and the north is Canada. The book could have perhaps benefited from more context being worked into the main text, or, the explanation that ends the book may have been better utilized opening the book.

However, taking the paratext into context, Migrant tells a unique story opening readers and listeners to a different way of life, clearly not linked to just specifically Mennonite migrant workers, but migrant or seasonal workers in general. Trottier makes it clear in her explanation that she wanted to write this story to bring issues of social justice to the surface: “Migrants deserve safe working and living conditions. They deserve recognition for an honest day’s labour. They should be treated with the same respect that is extended to citizens and visitors alike” (npg). Hopefully reading this book to children can spark some interesting discussion surrounding social justice, and the life of migrant workers.

As with so many picturebooks Isabelle Arsenault has illustrated, in the case of Migrant, it is Arsenault’s art which both cements the message to the history, as well as allows the text to transcend the historical background. Arsensault’s illustrations are complex and whimsical, making the reading of this book largely appealing to younger children. Patterns and shapes are repeated throughout the book, linking Anna’s dream world to reality. For example, after imagining her family as geese (geese are drawn wearing hats and head scarfs), the silhouette of the geese is repeated on the following page in the shadows of Anna’s actual family. Collaged triangles that decorate the front and back matter are repeated in the quilts Anna’s brothers and sisters sleep under. Such repetitions visually connect the textual metaphors and similes to one another, blurring the boundaries between literary language and reality. And, personally, I find the red, orange and blue color scheme and the combination of paper collage and crayon drawings visually appealing. Whether or not a child can yet grasp the call for social justice, the art will be appealing.

While I feel the art could engage younger readers, I think the book’s message makes Migrant best suited to children 5 and older. I could see the picturebook being a great discussion and teaching tool in any elementary grade. I give the book a 4/5