Sunday, November 14, 2010

Canadian youth fiction finalists focus on mental illness, institutionalization, eating disorders, other serious subjects

From Pamela Sword at The Chronicle Herald in Canada:

It seems no happy books or epic adventures were good enough to make the finalist cut in the children’s text category in this year’s Governor General’s Literary Awards.

Instead, the five finalists deal with mental illness, eating disorders, rape, self-harm and the grim institutional life of a girl with Down syndrome. These are definitely not books for elementary school kids.

And while each ends with at least a smidgen of life-affirming hope, you have to wade through a lot of sad and harrowing stuff to get there.

The winner of the competition will be announced Nov. 16 in Montreal. May the nicest book win.

Me, Myself and Ike K.L. Denman, Powell River, B.C. (Orca, 192 pages, $12.95)

At 17, Kit Latimer has a pretty great life — he’s a good student and star basketball player who has a loving family and a cheerleader girlfriend.

But he slowly becomes obsessed with becoming the next "ice man," after he sees a TV documentary about a 5,000-year-old corpse found frozen on a mountainside.

Egged on by his imaginary, verbally abusive companion Ike, Kit gathers modern artifacts to take with him on his one-way suicidal trek up a B.C. glacier and becomes increasingly isolated from the people around him. As his mental illness deepens, he becomes more paranoid — believing that everyone with a tattoo is being controlled by nanobots.

Using a suspenseful first-person narrative, Denman tackles the difficult subject of schizophrenia in a sympathetic and believable manner.

Tyranny Lesley Fairfield, Toronto (Tundra, 120 pages, $12.99)

Fairfield’s own 30-year battle with anorexia inspired this graphic novel that traces how one young woman succumbs to an eating disorder that almost takes her life, and how she ultimately recovers.

Anna’s anorexic mindset is portrayed as Tyranny, a scary-looking line drawing that berates her for eating too much and being too fat, even as she starves herself down to 85 pounds and becomes too sick to even stand.

Finally, Anna enters a treatment centre, where "Tyranny and her terrible destructive power came into focus." And she writes a letter to her, telling her she no longer cares about being thin.

Often sad but ultimately hopeful, this book has a genuine heart, inspired by the author’s own experience and sympathy for anyone with this terrible disease.

Free as a Bird (pictured) Gina McMurchy-Barber, Surrey, B.C. (Dundurn, 168 pages, $12.99)

Born with Down syndrome in 1957, Ruby Jean Sharp was loved unconditionally by her grandmother but barely tolerated by her mother. When her grandmother dies, eight-year-old Ruby Jean is packed off to the notorious residential Woodlands School in New Westminster, B.C.

"That wasn’t a nice place for a liddle kid — nope, not a nice place a’tall," she later reflects.

At Woodlands, she copes with the abuse and isolation by scratching and biting (herself and "the uniforms" who treat the kids like cattle) and by becoming mute.

But one day, a life-skills worker takes Ruby Jean under her wing with a promise that one day she’ll be able to leave Woodlands and live on her own. Ultimately, Ruby Jean does, along the way finding a family that loves her and a self-sufficiency on the streets.

McMurchy-Barber’s sister Jane was born with Down syndrome in 1954 but her parents ignored their doctor’s advice to institutionalize her. She exceeded all expectations and went on to live a full and independent life.

Fishtailing Wendy Phillips, Richmond, B.C. (Coteau, 196 pages, $14.95)

A tragedy told in a series of free verse poems, Fishtailing is the story of four teenagers whose lives become intertwined, then ruined or redeemed.

Natalie is manipulative and dangerous, the product of alcohol and neglectful parents and the victim of rape at the hands of her father’s friend. Tricia, who resents her blended family, soon falls under Natalie’s spell. Kyle, expected to be a mechanic like his dad, instead has a thing for music and Tricia. Miguel, who lusts after Natalie, is a refugee who still suffers from the horrors he saw, including the killing of his family.

Fishtailing is told through the teens’ English-class poems and those of their teacher and guidance counsellor. Surprisingly, the format works. The poems are full of the turbulent thoughts and emotions of the teenage years as the story quickly progresses to its tragic conclusion at a party.

Scars Cheryl Rainfield, Toronto (WestSide Books, 248 pages, $17)

Kendra recalls being raped repeatedly when she was younger but can’t remember what her abuser looked like. Therapy may change that, with the help of Kendra’s artwork and a new love. In the meantime, she copes by cutting herself with a razor knife.

As she remembers more details, she begins to believe she’s being stalked by the rapist, who leaves clues that he’s always watching her.

I was able to figure out who the bad guy was pretty quickly, but teen readers may find the ending more shocking.

Informed by Rainfield’s own experiences with sexual abuse and self-harm, the character of Kendra is believable and utterly sympathetic.