CM . . .
. Volume XIV Number 20 . . . . May 30, 2008
Zoe is just like any regular kid. She loves to laugh with her classmates, play with her dog and learn new things in school. But stuck in her wheelchair and never allowed to do anything fun or exciting, she feels like her life is boring. Zoe wants an adventure. Will she find it? In Christina Minaki’s debut novel, problems with characterization, structure and theme can sometimes meddle with an otherwise rich and interesting story of a young girl finding her way in the world. Zoe’s Extraordinary Holiday Adventures features a colourful cast of characters. Young Zoe’s world is full of warm, supportive adults and mostly warm, supportive children, except for one condescending classmate and a pesky younger brother. There are the supportive parents, teachers, elderly next door neighbours and health care professionals who always know exactly the correct wisdom to impart, and who all chime in with the same messaging that Zoe can do anything she sets her mind to, and that diversity is beautiful. Adults are given a lot of dialogue space in this novel. I would like to have seen more scenes with children only rather than the many scenes where adults intervene and give a good, well-meaning lecture or assistance to the children.
The relationship between Zoe and her steadfast assistance dog, Ella, however, offers some of the book’s most moving moments. Minaki’s creating an authentic and touching friendship between these two characters adds much richness to the narrative. “Ella trust[s] Zoe” and knows all Zoe’s secrets, the reader is told early on, and it is evident that their friendship is a sustaining force for both of them. Others notice this special dynamic, such as when Zoe’s classmate Samir gives her a cartoon that he drew: It was a cartoon, a picture of Ella in Zoe’s wheelchair, sitting happily with her pink tongue lolling out excitedly. And in the cartoon, Zoe was standing behind the wheelchair, pushing it. There was a cartoon bubble right over Ella’s head, to show what she was thinking: “Now this is more like it!” “Look, Ella!” Zoe exclaimed. “Look at us! Isn’t this funny? Look at what Samir drew for us!” Ella wagged her tail.
While Minaki finds great success with the emotional resonance of her title character, she is less successful in her overall structure and theme of the novel. Diversity is an overarching theme of this book, with the chapter structure following Zoe’s school lessons about various religious and cultural holidays. Sizable portions of the novel are filled with educational descriptions of these holidays, including Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Divali and Eid. Out of these lessons in diversity, Zoe realizes that, although everyone is different, everyone has something to contribute to the world. Admirable messaging, certainly, but a little more subtlety in imparting it would have helped.
Zoe is a wonderful character with a wonderful outlook in a sometimes-muddled novel. Moments such as when Zoe attempts to go up a flight of stairs while Trick-or-Treating, or when she tries make herself heard to a waitress in a restaurant are immediate and poignant. Scenes like these are where Minaki’s writing is so beautifully authentic that it brought tears to my eyes on several occasions.
Zoe’s Extraordinary Holiday Adventures is at its best when the focus is on Zoe’s inner journey, her musings and her struggles. For the most part, unfortunately, Zoe’s world seems to have more lessons in it than adventures.
Recommended with reservations.
Christy Goerzen holds an MA in Children’s Literature from UBC and is the Communications & Marketing Manager for the North Vancouver District Library system.
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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.