CM . . .
. Volume XVI Number 36. . . .May 21, 2010
Toronto, ON: Dundurn Press, 2010.
91 pp, pbk., $12.99.
Grades 4-7 / Ages 9-12.
Review by Shelbey Krahn.
Reviewed from Advance Readers Copy.
The ravine was coming up, so Jak increased his speed as he hurtled down into the bushes, dodging to the left and bounding over rocks in a stream. He jumped and pivoted from rock to rock until he came to the path that his own feet had worn through the woods over the past summers.
Behind him Steve was crashing in the ravine, attempting to follow.
The story begins with Jak, a 12-year-old boy, being chased by a bully through a ravine. The ravine is where Jak feels at home, but it is going to be destroyed for a housing development. Even though Jak is a quiet boy, he develops leadership skills as he creates a plan to save the habitat of so many animals. Jak receives guidance and wisdom from the teachings of Grandfather Rock, a talking boulder, who gives him insight into how to deal with the bully and how to save the ravine.
The cover art is a watercolour of a bear and a fox - the bear is exquisite, but the fox looks like a very large and heavyset dog. In the story as told by Grandfather Rock, the bear is a narcissistic creature that is tricked by a fox. Jak identifies with the fox, an underdog needing to use his wits to win over large foes. Inside the book, the black-and-white cartoons do not match the gravity or style of the First Nations content.
The book has a number of strengths:
The reader learns a lot of First Nations history and wisdom in a succinct and natural manner.
Readers benefit from learning how to organize a protest, even without any help from adults.
The reader connects with the main character and his feelings as well as with the natural beauty of the ravine.
Jak’s sister is nicely developed as his foil; she’s self-absorbed and unappreciative of nature, yet Jak still seeks to open her eyes and ears to the wisdom he has learned from Grandfather Rock.
The parental conflicts and preoccupations seem realistic.
The book’s weaknesses include problems of believability:
Although Jak’s method of dealing with the bully is worthwhile, the almost immediate smile of respect and then the strong support of the protest are implausible. Jealousy and resentment do not melt away with one look. The transition requires more episodes of bully-taming techniques.
The success of the protest would ring true to only the most naive nine-year-old. A project manager would not walk away from a job so irresponsibly. It would be career suicide. As well, the developer could hire another project manager easily enough, and the destruction of the ravine would still take place.
There is a lack of realistic detail on the bureaucracy of development. Taking the protest to City Hall would have been more believable and educational. Merging the Jak and Grandfather Rock narrative and the details of a bonafide successful protest, such as the fight against the development of Sudbury’s Roxborough Greenbelt, could have much improved this novel.
No parents watching the gathering of children could have resisted finding out what was going on. The gathering could have been a lynch mob. Parents can only be proud of a child’s burgeoning leadership skills if they know the child is using his or her powers for good.
Jak’s Story is enjoyable and interesting, but it suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. Is the audience 6 to 8-year-olds (justifying the oversimplicity of the protest plot and short book length) or is it teenagers (focus on activism, developing leadership skills and romance)? Is the novel art (wisdom of the elders) or a comedy (the cartoon illustrations)? The author has talent and lots of potential, and so I expect great work from him in the future.
Recommended with reservations.
Shelbey Krahn is a librarian for the School of Education at Laurentian University in Sudbury, ON.
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