CM . . . . Volume XV Number 21. . . .June 12, 2009.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, 2009.
214 pp., pbk. & hc., $12.95 (pbk.), $18.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-0-88899-861-3 (pbk.), ISBN 978-0-88899-855-2 (hc.).
Grades 7-9 / Ages 12-14.
Review by Ann Ketcheson.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
When I got home, it was way past my curfew. Normally Mom would have gotten out of bed to throw a mild fit but she didn’t bother. She wasn’t sweating the small stuff, I guess.
Maggie was passed out on the couch in the living room, her movie still playing on the TV. I turned it off. Every so often her pain was so uncomfortable, she couldn’t sleep and ended up down here zoning out on TV. She was all set up with pillows and comforter. On the coffee table was an apple core and half-eaten rice cake spread with almond butter, a glass of water, a box of unbleached tissues, two prescription bottles and a deck of cards. She and Mom had an ongoing rummy match, a penny a point.
Snoring through her nose, Maggie was making little pig snuffles. In the old days, meaning a few weeks ago, I would have pinched her nostrils closed, laughed as she struggled to catch a breath and then startled awake.
Asleep, she looked even younger than twelve. More like a perfectly healthy six-year-old. She was holding a bottle of pink nail polish in one hand, her nails a pearly pink. I pulled out my camera and snapped some pictures.
A raised voice came from upstairs. I couldn’t tell whose, but it didn’t sound happy.
In the kitchen I grabbed a bag of baked not fried potato chips, a couple of organic bananas and a glass of goat’s milk and went downstairs. I sipped the milk. I was thicker than I was used to and had a goaty thing going on but it wasn’t bad.
I went online and looked up nail polish. Nail polish contained phthalates, a carcinogen. Shit. Maybe it was the nail polish. Maggie loved painting her nails. Had been doing it since she was three. I’d tell Mom tomorrow.
I would have thought Dad would know this stuff. He was the scientist in the family, after all.
The world of 16-year-old Gray is shattered when the family learns that his younger sister, Maggie, has been diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer. Gray’s mother is sure it can be cured and tries out all kinds of healthy remedies, including turmeric capsules and macrobiotic cooking. Gray’s dad is a scientist who is involved in bio-mechanics at the university, but, rather than finding solutions, he seems to just work more, talk less, and generally withdraw from the problem. Maggie, herself, continues work on her big science project, but the disease keeps her from attending school and eventually forces her to use oxygen most of the time.
Gray’s own reaction to the devastating news is to go online and find out everything he can about the causes of this rare disease, in the hope that removing carcinogens from Maggie’s environment might improve her health and lead to a recovery. To his dismay, almost everything he uses and eats contains some chemical that is potentially carcinogenic. Gray immediately insists that his family get rid of many things around the house, and that they radically change their seemingly unhealthy diet and lifestyle. Unable to truly change his home environment and thus feeling unable to help his sister, Gray opts out in order to make his point. He quits school and his part-time job at the movie theatre and goes to work on a nearby organic farm, living in a tent and foraging for two of his meals every day. Thus he becomes a poster boy for the environmental movement and gains the attention of local media. He learns, however, that this, too, has its problems and certainly doesn’t improve anything for Maggie.
Crane’s young adult novel is fast paced and includes a cast of realistic and interesting characters. The lens of Maggie’s worsening illness focuses readers on personality traits and how each character deals with the situation. For instance, some of Gray’s friends desert him while others are unexpectedly supportive. Their child’s illness puts a huge strain on the marriage of Gray’s parents. His mother becomes more and more emotional and reaches the point of breaking down completely. His father, while equally worried, barely shows his concern and seems to simply become gruff and withdrawn. They have difficulty understanding one another and this change in his parents completely baffles and aggravates Gray.
Gray is, himself, an interesting character who will perhaps inspire conversation among readers of the novel. As one would expect of a typical teen, he turns to the internet only to be inundated by information. His decision to give up modern living and stop being –– in his own words –– a “hypocrite” proves to him in the end how linked we are to everything around us, making it almost impossible to disconnect ourselves from society. Despite Gray’s gallant efforts to “go green,” his plans backfire completely.
Crane handles the emotional aspects of the novel with skill and tact. She gives readers much to think about when Maggie talks about gratitude and love, suggesting that it is more important to appreciate things as they are (gratitude) than to try and change them for what we perceive to be better for the people around us (love). “...feeling two parts gratitude and one part love is the world’s true nature” (p. 147). This might seem rather profound for the average 12-year-old, but Crane makes it work in the overall composition of Maggie’s personality. When Maggie dies near the end of the novel, Crane also has a very delicate touch. The scene is realistic, personal and moving without becoming maudlin and excessively emotional. The simple yet effective cover art shows a teenage boy holding a camera and seated in front of an open window. Both are hugely symbolic and are only truly understood and put into perspective by the reader at the end of the book.
Crane has given her readers a moving and thought-provoking novel. We are urged to think about our environment and how our modern lifestyle might impact our health. We are urged to confront the emotions which arise around the topics of illness and death. Gray and his family learn there is no ‘solution’ to terminal illness and death. Each member deals with worry and fear in his/her own way, and young adults may be able to relate to any or all of them, depending on their own life experiences. The two very serious themes of environmental issues and illness/death are the core of the novel yet are expressed through characters and settings which are realistic, warm and even humorous at times. Dede Crane apparently cares about, even loves, her creations in the world of Poster Boy and this empathy will no doubt extend to those young readers who choose this outstanding novel.
Ann Ketcheson is a retired teacher-librarian and teacher of high school English and French. She lives in Ottawa, ON, where she has turned her love of travel into a second career as a travel consultant.
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