________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 6 . . . . October 9, 2009


Explore. (Orca Currents).

Christy Goerzen.
Victoria, BC: Orca Books, 2009.
106 pp., pbk. & hc., $9.95 (pbk.), $16.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-55469-119-7 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55469-120-3.

Subject Headings:
Wilderness survival-Juvenile fiction.
Problem youth-Juvenile fiction

Grades 7-10 / Ages 12-15.

Review by Tara Williston.

*** /4


Everyone else in the room was chatting in little groups. They all came from different high schools in the Okanagan because they're outdoorsy keeners. They were here because they love hiking and classifying plant species and whatever else Granolas like to do.

But why was I here? Because Lardface and her cronies didn't know what else to do with me.

I had my first meeting with Officer "Lardface" Lando within days of moving to the new town. Officer Lando, it said on her office door, High School Community Liaison. That's when she told me about the "amazing" Explore program. She gave me a whole spiel about perfect attendance, participation in all group activities, and a good attitude.

"Three strikes and you're out though, buddy. Otherwise it's off to the Derbin day program for you.

"The Explore program was five months of outdoor activity followed by five months of regular school classes. I knew about Derbin already, 'cause Cam went there a couple of years ago. They have to pick up garbage at playgrounds and stuff like that. It sounded horrible. But being forced to climb mountains with a bunch of hippies didn't sound so great either. Officer Lardface got me set up with English and math tutors, reminding me all the while that I was a good kid who falls in with the wrong peer groups.

I'd heard that one before. It was easy to find guys to hang out with. Whenever Dad and I moved to a new town, I just rode my BMX to the corner store and saw who was there. Before this summer I never did anything super bad, just keyed some cars and tagged some buildings downtown. We got caught sometimes, but the cops usually thought I was following along, and nothing happened to me. You have an innocent face, someone told me once. That didn't work last time though.

So I had no choice. My dad didn't care either way. "Just don't come running to me every time you need money to fix your canoe paddle," he'd said, cracking open a beer and turning back to his hockey game.


Christy Goerzen's first novel, Explore, makes a solid addition to this year's "Orca Currents" line-up of "hi-lo" young adult fiction. Within the space of 15 short pages, Goerzen neatly manages to sketch a multi-layered portrait of her protagonist, provide clear snapshots of the other major characters, work in enough back story to explain the hero's current situation, and slide in a little strategically-placed humour, too. By the close of Chapter 2, the author has shown readers that Mike Longridge is basically a good guy, though he's definitely no teenaged goody-two shoes: he has ended up in the Explore program after being caught at the scene of a robbery. His partners in crime - also the ones who proposed the break-in - had all run for it as soon as they heard the car in the driveway, but Mike, who lingered to guiltily clean up a broken flower pot, got caught red-handed. And now he's got to choose between the Explore program or Derbin, a daytime detention centre-style school. Not much of a choice at all, really. So Explore it is.

     Written in the first person, Explore is an excellent example of the classic "show-don't-tell" rule of character development. Through Mike's self-disparaging comments, sarcastic but intelligent humour, and defeatist thoughts, readers quickly see that he has terribly low self-esteem and is easily discouraged. They also gradually understand the full extent of his father's neglectful and selfish parenting - Mike and his dad, a shady businessman of sorts, have changed towns countless times, every time "the stacks of unpaid bills start to pile up." Father regularly asks son to give him and his latest flame "a little alone time," and it is clear that the father and son spend as little time together as possible. From details, such as the family tradition of going to the local dump to furnish their latest new place, and Mike's total unfamiliarity with typical teen activities like using email and Facebook, readers can easily glean that money is tight and Mike has had few privileges growing up.

     In case Mike's various disadvantages aren't already a good bet that teen readers will be feeling for the book's hero after the first few chapters, Goerzen also makes sure to provide a surefire catalyst for reader empathy: romantic rejection. On his very first day at Explore, bubbly, beautiful Lisa Park immediately catches Mike's eye, and the two quickly make a connection. But Mike misreads Lisa's friendliness for something more, and when she tells him she's "just not interested in [him] that way," Mike seems to feel like even more of a misfit at Explore. His already low self-esteem plummets even further at this setback, and by the time the "dreaded backcountry ski trip" rolls around, his negative self-talk is nearly constant. -- Perfect timing for the book's exciting climax!

     I won't divulge any further details of Explore's plot; I will say only that the climax is well-executed: suspenseful, believable, and it finally leads to a positive boost in Mike's self-image. From there, the denouement gracefully unwinds to an ending that feels just right - it is happy without seeming too soppy-sweet, and realistic. Teen readers will cheer for Mike's newfound confidence and assertiveness, and perhaps see some important lessons for positive changes they can make in their own lives.

     The book's many strengths more than make up for some small weak points, for example, occasionally sloppy editing (in several instances, verb tenses do not accord). Around the book's midpoint, Mike also goes through a rather abrupt shift in his attitude toward the Explore program and its activities. Within just three pages, he goes from throwing his helmet to the ground, ready to completely give up on rock climbing, to enthusiastically stating, "I was ready to get this party started." Then again, attention from his crush, Lisa, could well explain Mike's sudden mood change, so perhaps the author intended this quick turnabout!

     Explore has everything a good teen read needs and would be an especially good selection for reluctant readers who are interested in outdoor sports.


Tara Williston, a Children's Librarian with the Burnaby Public Library, lives in Vancouver, BC.

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

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The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
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