________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 5. . . .October 24, 2008


The Incredibly Ordinary Danny Chandelier.

Laura Trunkey.
Toronto, ON: Annick Press, 2008.
212 pp., pbk. & hc., $9.95 (pbk.), $19.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-2-55451-138-9 (pbk.), ISBN 978-2-55451-139-6.

Grades 4-6 / Ages 9-11.

Review by Tara Williston.

***½ /4



"Every so often some newcomer gets the idea to start cutting quicker to reach the well. Some have made it deeper into the forest, but none of those folks ever made it back to Lily Brook. That's one of the reasons there are only eighty-three Uglies and not a hundred. Step into the mouth of the forest and it will swallow you, Danny Boy." With that he drops my hand, stands, and starts towards the dorm.

I sit there, staring at my swollen palm, thinking about the only other person who ever called me Danny Boy. She is so far away from me, half the world in fact. On the plane I had tried to count the days until I graduated from Lily Brook Academy. It seemed like an eternity. But there isn't a Lily Brook Academy, and I'm not going to graduate. I'm going to spend the rest of my life in Lily Brook. I will grow old here, just like Uncle Ernst is growing old. Thinking about it makes my stomach flip over. I rub at my eyes, which are blurry with tears although I hadn't realized I was crying, and follow Uncle Ernst inside. Most of the Uglies are already asleep in their beds. I lie down on mine, so tired that even the sawdust pillow feels comfortable. I close my eyes, and before I have a chance tothink another thought I am asleep.


With the publication of The Incredibly Ordinary Danny Chandelier, Victoria, BC-based Laura Trunkey arrives onto the Canadian children's literature scene with a first novel filled with fairy tale-style flourish – that is, smacking of morality and magic, as all good fairy tales do!

     As the title promises, the book's eponymous hero, Danny Chandelier, is really, truly, extremely, incredibly ordinary. In Danny's own words:

"I am average. I am average height and average weight with average-looking brown eyes and hair that is exceptional only because of the cowlick that won't life flat unless my mother presses it down with spit. I am an average student who is sort of good at everything and great at nothing….On my report cards my teachers always write: 'Danny is a fine student' or 'Danny is a fine young man.' My father says 'fine' means 'forgettable.'"

     The only way in which Danny's incredible ordinary-ness isn't ordinary is the fact that he comes from a family, and a place, that are in every way extraordinary. It's easy to see why Danny doesn't feel quite up to snuff, living in the shadow of three exceptionally over-achieving sisters and an impossible-to-please brilliant business magnate of a father, inside the gated community of "Currency," complete with its own lake and forest. Danny's mother, at least, seems a little more run-of-the-mill: she's just a regular mom who wants the best for her son. Still, Danny's loving mother is powerless to sway her domineering husband in his decision to send the unsatisfactory Danny off to Lily Brook Academy where "being not so good will finally be good enough."

     So off to Lily Brook Danny goes, only to discover that Lily Brook Academy's claims of superior instruction, luxury accommodation, and residents so happy that even after graduation they choose to remain there, are not just slight exaggerations but are, in fact, outright lies. Lily Brook is a total sham, a great cover-up for the despicable Brook family's self-serving labour camps where day-in and day-out students are forced to hack away at a forbidding forest of highly uncooperative trees – for what purpose, they are not (at first) told. Danny and his new friends – similarly disappointing outcasts from their own extraordinary families – are housed in dank, decrepit bunkers and fed a steady diet of revolting, watery soups made from puréed kitchen scraps. They face daily intimidation and worse from Lily Brook's dedicated staff of henchmen and women, led by the particularly fearsome top henchwoman, the militaristic matriarch called Captain Ma'am.

     Life at Lily Brook quickly settles into its own horrible rhythm, leaving Danny and his fellows in misery to despair at ever being freed from this awful place. Weeks pass bleakly, until the dismal rhythm is at last broken the day that two of Danny's cohorts snap. In the middle of another day of toil at the forest's edge, two boys throw down their tools and refuse to go on with the futile task of cutting away at the indestructible brush as they're instructed. Not only do they stop working, but they begin to scream out threats of entering the sinister forest in search of the legendary wishing well purported to be at its centre. Ignoring the discouragements from Danny's more cautious little gang, José and the unnamed upstart who began it all charge into the dark forest which welcomes them with a few good wallops administered by violent tree branches. Said branches then close up behind the boys, barring their way out, and that is the last that is seen of the two children who dared break ranks.

     The last, that is, until Danny's crew come up with a plan to enter the forest and save their friends. So into the forest the brave youngsters go, and there they find not only their lost friends, but every other Lily Brooker who's ever gone missing and the much-coveted wishing well to boot. Then unfolds a drama which illustrates the power of human greed at its worst but happily winds up with all the villains being served up a giant-sized portion of some very just desserts, and the meek inheriting…well, not quite all the Earth, but at least all of Lily Brook. Lily Brook Academy's ending, as are those of Danny and all his new extra-ordinary friends, is very happy indeed: each ho-hum kid discovers his or her humdinger of a hidden talent, and Lily Brook Academy becomes a much happier place to be, a place whose graduates do, in fact, choose to stay on.

     Trunkey's first juvenile novel is a delightful romp of a read, laced with humour, adventure and magic throughout, from the silly place and character names to the true story of Danny's mother's roots – an interesting final twist in the plot which ties up all of the story's loose ends quite nicely. There are only a handful of instances where Trunkey's writing falters – in a story so entirely fantastical the single mention of a real city (Boston) both jars the reader and detracts from the otherwise very effective make-believe world the author describes. Similes and descriptive passages have a slight tendency toward repetition, and the clichéd: the phrase "so silent/quiet that sound[s] seem[s[ to echo off the walls" is used more than once (p. 57 & p. 79), and the words "brown paper packages tied up with string" (p. 186) may sound somewhat familiar to even very young readers' ears!

     These small shortcomings aside, though, Trunkey's The Incredibly Ordinary Danny Chandelier is a wonderful tale told in beautiful fairy tale-true prose, from the point of view of a most winsome young narrator, the very extraordinary Danny. The book's messages of the evils of greed, the value of true friendship and family, and that even the most average kids have something good to offer, are ones which make for a highly enjoyable read.

Highly Recommended.

Tara Williston is an MLIS Candidate at the School of Library, Archival & Information Studies at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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