CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 17. . . .January 8, 2010.
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2009.
157 pp., pbk, $9.95.
Grades 4-7 / Ages 9-12.
Review by Michelle Superle.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
“Emmett, you’ve been living a lie!”
Emmett stepped backward. He looked like he’d been hit on the head with a sledgehammer.
“Huh?” he spluttered.
Magnolia continued. “I know you love me, Emmett. I’ve seen it in your eyes. In the way you look at me across a crowded room. I know your heart is burning with passion. But, alas! I cannot love you the same way!”
With a sweep of her princess dress, Magnolia jumped from the balcony and landed in front of Emmett.
He took another step backward, stunned.
“It’s no use pretending, Emmett. It’s no use going on like this!” she cried. “All the time you’ve been yearning for me, another girl has loved you with a true and faithful heart! Someone a hundred times more worthy of your love than I am! Yes, Emmett, your Secret Admirer!”
“My Secret Admirer!” Emmett gasped. “Who is she?”
Although it may not be immediately apparent, this excerpt is from a middle-grade novel recommended for nine to twelve-year-old readers: Dunces Anonymous by Kate Jaimet. The tween romance (non-sexual) comprises a subplot of this schlocky school story in which three misfits attempt to escape their parents’ high expectations by joining a club called, of course, Dunces Anonymous. Predictably enough, each friend succeeds, throughout the course of the narrative, in accomplishing admirable goals more aligned with their own value system than their parents’. Josh learns to play chess; Wang learns to fence; Magnolia convinces her mother that she should be allowed to try out for the role of the villain instead of the leading lady in the next school play. No matter that these goals actually sound suspiciously like a parental fantasy of ideal, highly cultured children.
In fact, most of the 11-year-old characters in Dunces Anonymous seem more like adults than children, but they are the flat adult characters of commercial genre fiction. Like most commercial genre fiction, Dunces Anonymous is cleverly plotted and well-paced, but the trite, snappy dialogue sounds unlike anything one might hear in most Intermediate grade classrooms. And although it’s difficult to fault the novel’s empowering message - that children can take initiative in their own lives and successfully achieve their goals - the story’s ideological paradoxes and superficiality render the message powerless.
In the past few decades, the general trend in Canadian children’s literature has been towards usually “serious” works of social consciousness and justice that are clearly situated in a Canadian context. Today, economic pressures often push publishers towards attempting to produce more “popular” books, often with mixed results, especially when nothing in the text indicates that it is actually Canadian (as is the case with Dunces Anonymous). This is a novel that is caught in the cross-fire, trying to be both popular and serious at once, and achieving neither. It does not reflect well on Canadian children’s literature production, and it has no potential for classroom use. Some children may enjoy it as light escapism.
Recommended with reservations.
Michelle Superle, who teaches in the Children’s Studies Program at York University, recently received her PhD in Children’s Literature from Newcastle University.
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