People say kids are resilient, and can endure most anything. Give them the opportunity, and they will rise to it.
Susan Neilsen has definitely provided her main characters with challenges –and relevant ones– that make for a joyful, and nuanced read, running the gamut of emotions: Laughter, bewilderment, nerves, tears, and anger. Nielsen engages the reader through two distinct narrative voices: Newly minted brother and sister, to the happiness of one, and the chagrin of the other.
To say that Stewart and Ashley are from two different worlds would be an understatement. 13 year old Stewart lost his mother a few years previous; he loved her very much, and she understood him and his eccentricities. When Stewart was four, his parents realized he was gifted. After a false start in public school, he was sent to a smaller school where he could be challenged, but he has always struggled on a social level. It is the one part of himself that he refers to as “ungifted.”
Following a dark period, things have started to look up for Stewart and his father, Leonard. His father has been developing a relationship with his co-worker Caroline, and they have decided to move in together. This means Stewart will gain a sister, Ashley; he makes every effort to be “89.9 % happy about it.” He decides to transfer to regular high school –Ashley’s– and is skipped ahead into the ninth grade because of his gifted status, ensuring he and his new sister will share at least one class.
Ashley is horrified. At 14, she’s worked her way up to the top of the school food chain, despite the fact that can’t get her words straight. She has an image to maintain, and “Spewart” is a very real threat to that. Not only does she consider him a geek, and an intruder in her home, but he has insight into something she’s been hiding over the past year. Ashley’s dad is gay, and although she doesn’t consider herself homophobic, she’s terrified of what this information coming out will do to her current social status. Couple that with her refusal to accept the current circumstances –her father living in the laneway house on the same property and beginning to date– and it makes her bitter, angry and difficult to be around. Her vulnerability is hidden behind a shield of sharp words, and a defensive offence.
The story deals with themes of acceptance, loss, violation, and reconciliation. Neilsen has addressed these issues head on, making the story accessible and relatable to a young adult audience. She arms teens with creative ideas for coping with tough situations, and who to talk to without preaching at them. This is to be expected; Neilsen is a seasoned writer of both television and literary fiction, and most of her award-winning work is aimed directly at this audience. (She’s also Canadian, which makes me very proud.)
The book itself is an easy read, switching seamlessly back and forth between viewpoints, and took me a few hours to finish. Perfect for the bus, or an after school escape.