CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 18. . . .January 14, 2011.
Benched. (Orca Currents).
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2011.
106 pp., pbk. & hc., $9.95 (pbk.), $16.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-55469-408-2 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55469-409-9 (hc.).
Grades 5-8 / Ages 10-13.
Review by Karen Boyd.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
We had barely sat down when Bowman started in on me. “Are you gonna finish telling us what that guy wanted?”
“Okay.” I leaned in. “So, this dude asks me if I’m Dylan Manning’s brother. When I say yeah, he tells me that Beaker wants to see us-the three of us. Like he knows we hang out.”
“What do you mean, he wants to see us?” Taz sat up and scanned the restaurant.
“I don’t know exactly.” I poked at my sundae with a spoon, but I didn’t take a bite. “He asked if we want to earn some quick cash.”
Benched is the newest addition to the “Orca Currents” series. As such, it fits the short, high-interest, low-vocabulary formula for reluctant readers aged 10-13. The somewhat misleading title may have some sports fans picking up the book in hopes of a read about a team sport and an out of favour, or benched, athlete. This is not what they are getting. Benched is the story of Cody and his friends, Taz and Bowman. The trio is asked by Beaker’s gang to steal a park bench as an initiation into other, hopefully paying, jobs required by the gang. The three friends feel trapped into complying by the threat of physical violence. After successfully completing the task, they realize that they are still trapped by further requests and will find themselves getting sucked deeper and deeper into gang life unless they find a way to stop now.
There is the feeling of coming into this novel in the middle of a story. We come to understand that Cody’s brother, Dylan, has died and that his family is dealing with the grief. We also are led to believe that Dylan may, or may not, have been a member of Beaker’s gang, that he may or may not have done something to get Beaker out of trouble, and he may or may not have been drinking when he was killed on his motorcycle. There is clearly some connection between Dylan and the mess in which Cody finds himself, but I am unclear as to what the connection is.
More clearly developed and interesting is the conflict that Cody deals with. He is grieving his brother and trying to deal with his parents’ grief and the changes in his family. He is torn between the requests of the gang and his own hopes to be a journalist on the school paper and impress one of the other young reporters. Cody also finds out that his bench theft is not a victimless crime and that he must make amends for the hurt he has caused to his favourite teacher’s family. These struggles make Cody an interesting and likeable character. In fact, I end the novel wishing that I could learn more about Cody and the decisions that he makes in his life. Cody’s character single-handedly saves the novel from the flawed plot line.
Many of the issues in the book are too easily brought to conclusion. Cody’s teacher quickly forgives him. Cosy is able to replace the park bench in record time, a happening with which anyone who has ever dealt with bureaucracy will take issue. Cody also finds his way out of the gang violence by just asking Beaker politely if he can stop,
“Look “ I started.” It’s not like we don’t appreciate you giving us this opportunity. It’s just…I’m not sure it’s what we want.” I was looking at the ground as I talked. As I glanced up, Beaker was nodding. “I mean, maybe another time. Just not right now.” "Kid, Dylan did something for me that the other dudes don’t know about. I wouldn’t be here right now, if it weren’t for him. So, I can cut you some slack.” He grinned. “For now.”
This seems too easy, and I think will ring somewhat untrue to many readers. In some ways, the “Orca Currents” format limits the author from providing a more complex story, but Benched has an unsatisfying plot wrapped around an interesting character, and, therefore, it remains a book with some potential.
While Benched is flawed, it will still make a welcome addition to libraries and classrooms that are looking for accessible books for reluctant readers. And we can always hope that Cody Manning gets to make an appearance in another novel.
Karen Boyd is a doctoral candidate in language and literacy and an instructor in the Bachelor of Education program at the University of Manitoba.
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