CM . . .
. Volume XI Number 9 . . . .January 7, 2005
"Nellie" rhymes with "smelly," as Nell is frequently reminded by one of the several members of her class who delight in twitting her about her name, appearance, family, and anything else which might get a rise out of her. James A. Wyndotte School--JAWS to her--has "zero tolerance" for bullying and other unacceptable behaviour according to the teachers, but, in the two months that Nell has been attending the school, she has seen little evidence that the message has got through to the students. JAWS is also not an "academic" school. Why is she there? Because, while her mother is on a six-month peacekeeping stint in Bosnia, she and her brother Mikey are staying with their Uncle Martin in Edmonton and Mikey, being only seven, needs her close at hand for crisis intervention and lunch-at-home duty.
If this sounds as if Nell has drawn the short straw, well, that is certainly how she sees it. However, she has picked up one staunch friend and a protector in the form of the friend's older brother, but once she begins to cooperate with the principal in his attempt to "clean up" the school, neither of these can keep her from getting hurt, physically as well as emotionally.
The book is interesting for its basic story but also for the insights it gives on several other issues. The contrast between Mikey's elementary school, where the teachers are nurturing, caring, and concerned as well as being prepared to tailor their lessons to the interests of the children, and Nell's junior high is vividly drawn. At JAWS no one---with the exception of the principal---has even taken note that, although her name is Nellie (after Nellie McClung), she prefers to be called Nell, and this in spite of her having written it in large capitals at the head of her registration form. And there is certainly no acknowledgment of the fact that her mother is a peacekeeper. This is not surprising, or even reprehensible, but it does point up the enormous change in attitude between grades six and seven. It also shows the greater degree of freedom that elementary-school teachers have over the subject matter that they teach. When the mechanics of learning to read is what matters, you can "study" warm fuzzy beasties.
Also of interest is the focus on the difficulties of serving in the military in peacetime. There is little honour and glory, and separation from family puts incredible stresses on all the members. Nell remains remarkably patient with---and even fond of!---her brother in spite of her feeling that he is the cause of much of her misery.
I enjoyed reading this book very much, and I think it will strike a sympathetic chord with many young teenagers, especially, but not exclusively, girls.
Mary Thomas works in elementary school libraries in Winnipeg, MB, and is appreciative of the caring attitude that is prevalent among most teachers there.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.