________________ CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 41 . . . . June 24, 2011


No Ordinary Day.

Deborah Ellis.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, 2011.
160 pp., pbk. & hc., $12.95 (pbk.), $16.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-55498-108-3 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55498-134-2 (hc.).

Grades 4-7 / Ages 9-12.

Review by Rob Bittner.

*** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.



I thought about the stuffy little one-room shack where we all lived and slept. The cookstove smoke made the coal air even thicker. The room had mosquitoes and spiders, flies and ants that no amount of sweeping could get rid of. The whole family slept squished together on the dirt floor. There was hardly ever money for kerosene, so when the sun went down, the nights were long. It was a long way to the community toilet and the little ones often didn't make it.

The shack always smelled bad. Always.

But sometimes we had enough food and we played games like seeing who could stare the longest. My aunt taught us songs about animals. When my uncle was sober and not coughing, he would pretend that the little ones could hit him and make him fall over.

It was home.

Valli lives in Jharia, India, picking up coal to make money for a family that she isn't even sure is hers. When she makes a discovery about her parents one day, Valli stows away on a coal truck to Kolkata and starts a brand new life. When she begins to notice that she can't feel her feet and her skin is becoming discoloured, she begins to worry that she is becoming a monster, an untouchable, inhuman thing. Living on the streets isn't so bad, or so she convinces herself, until she gets taken to a hospital by Dr. Indra and finds out what is happening to her.

      Deborah Ellis, award-winning author of "The Breadwinner Trilogy," has crafted a disturbing, yet extremely touching story for a middle-grade audience. The story is told through the eyes of Valli as she comes to terms with her life on the streets and the idea that she can achieve more in life than begging for money and playing pranks on other boy gangs that she comes across in the streets of Kolkata. Valli's voice is endearing and childish, but it contains moments of maturity that come from living on the streets under some very harsh conditions.

      Dr. Indra, who is introduced later in the story, works at a hospital that specializes in tough cases involving burns, leprosy, and other medical conditions. Her character is strong and, in some ways, verges on angelic. She is compassionate toward her patients, especially Valli, but she can show tough love when necessary. The other women in the hospital are kind and helpful to Valli, but they also give her a glimpse of a reality that makes her want to get better.

      Overall, No Ordinary Day is well-suited for its audience, managing to be instructive without being didactic, and entertaining without minimizing the difficulties that Valli faces living in Kolkata. Some of the content is slightly graphic and is, therefore, more suited toward the older end of the middle-grade spectrum. Some of the story arc seems contrived and almost too perfect (i.e. Valli's just happening to run into a doctor from the hospital who just happens to witness something that helps her diagnosis.) But even so, No Ordinary Day is solid and worthy of attention by both its intended audience and adults alike. Giving a sometimes brutal but always engrossing view of a culture very different than our own, Ellis continues to write what needs to be read.


Rob Bittner is a graduate student of Children's and Young Adult Literature 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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