________________ CM . . . . Volume XIX Number 10. . . .November 9, 2012


Three Little Words.

Sarah N. Harvey.
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2012.
218 pp., trade pbk., pdf & epub, $12.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-1-4598-0065-6 (pbk.),
ISBN 978-1-4598-0066-3 (pdf),
ISBN 978-1-4598-0067-0 (epub).

Grades 7-9 / Ages 12-14.

Review by Karen Rankin.

*** /4

Reviewed from Advance Review Copy.



When Sid and Caleb come back from the boat at the end of the day, Megan is in the kitchen making dinner and Chloe is in the living room, sitting cross-legged on one end of the couch. Fariza is at the other end. A mountain of stuffed animals sits between them. Bears, zebras, cats, dogs, wolves, whales, deer, mice, parrots, giraffes, rabbits, monkeys, cows, penguins, moose, lambs, raccoons, foxes, owls, dolphins. Megan has been collecting them for years. Each new kid gets to choose and keep one. Sid still has the porcupine he chose when he was two; he named it Spike. Not very original, he thinks now, but Spike still sits on Sid's windowsill, his quills gathering dust. Fariza is clutching a gigantic pink flamingo by its scrawny neck. She is dressed in clothes that Sid recognizes from helping with the laundry. Stuffed animals are not the only things Megan collects. There is a cupboard full of used clothing upstairs, all sizes and styles. Everything from flip-flops to parkas. You could outfit a whole village in Africa from that cupboard.

Fariza has chosen an oversize red T-shirt, baggy cargo shorts and neon green Crocs. From the first day, kids are allowed to choose their own clothes. Megan says it makes them feel more in control. Sid vaguely remembers loving a hand-knit red sweater with a spaceship on its back, and he still pays attention to what kids choose out of the clothes cupboard. Looking at Fariza, he thinks how much she looks like a little boy in an older brother's hand-me-downs. Most of the girls who come to stay at the house gravitate toward skirts and shirts that are too tight and too short. They paw through the clothes cupboard, pouncing on bright colours and anything that sparkles. When Tobin first arrived, he traded his Walmart jeans for a men's kilt, which he wore with an assortment of wrinkled plaid shirts. Sid waited for him to get beat up, or at least bullied, but it never happened. Not to his knowledge anyway. He figured it helped that at fifteen, Tobin was six foot six and tattooed like a Samoan warrior.

"You and Fariza waiting for an ark, Chloe?" Caleb says as he and Sid shuck off their shoes by the front door.

"Might as well be," Chloe says. "Megan said it was okay to get out the stuffies. I thought maybe it would make Fariza feel better. I tried reading to her, but she won't sit close enough to me to see the pictures. Which means I couldn't do her hair or nails either." Chloe jumps up, causing an avalanche of animals. Fariza cringes deeper into the cushions.

Sid looks down at the pile of books on the battered wooden coffee table. All his old favourites: Where the Wild Things Are, Peepo, Mr. Gumpy's Outing, Blueberries for Sal. After Megan rescued him, all he wanted to do was sit beside her on the old green corduroy couch and trace his fingers over the pictures as she read. Over the years he has read to his share of kids. Some frightened, some angry, some inconsolable. Some of them couldn't sit still for very long, some of them fell asleep while he was reading, some of them sucked their thumbs, some of them smacked the books with an open palm or sucked on the corners. No matter what they did, Sid just kept reading. Mr. Gumpy owned a boat and his house was by a river. He wants to tell Chloe that she should be more patient, but she's already pulling on her shoes, babbling about being late for dinner, and how Irena, her grandmother, will kill her if she doesn't set the table. Patience is not Chloe's strength. Sid looks over at Caleb who raises his eyebrows.

"Irena runs a tight ship," Caleb agrees.


Sid was taken from his negligent mother when he was two-years-old. Since then, he has lived on a small island off the coast of BC with loving and caring foster parents, Megan and Caleb. Now, at 16, Sid is a devoted artist. He has a close friend in neighbouring Chloe, but it's summer holiday now, and he fears he may be on his way to becoming an obsessive-compulsive hermit. He "knows better than to get attached to any of the other kids [Megan and Caleb take in]" after Tobin, a favourite housemate of five years, moved away just six months before the story starts. Despite this, Sid eventually befriends Caleb and Megan's latest foster child, eight-year-old frightened and silent Fariza. One day a stranger, Phil, shows up and tells Sid that he's a friend of Sid's birthmother. Sid learns that his birthmother has disappeared, and that he has a 13-year-old half-brother, Wain, who has been missing for a week. Phil challenges Sid to get involved. Sid has no interest in meeting his birthmother, but decides he'll go to Victoria with Phil to meet Elizabeth, his birthmother's mother, and to help, somehow, to find Wain. It's an interesting and upsetting journey for Sid. His new grandmother is a wonderful surprise: Elizabeth is well-educated, well-read, and well-known on TV and the internet from commercials featuring "The Gray Matter Granny." Sid learns that his birthmother is a talented artist who needs medication to control her bi-polar disorder, and that Wain is well on his way to becoming a juvenile delinquent. Sid proves resourceful and manages to find his hurt and angry half-brother. The boys' mother has not yet returned, so Sid who misses Megan, Caleb, and Chloe invites Wain and their grandmother to live at his home until his birthmother shows up. At Sid's place, Elizabeth fits in perfectly, but Wain is a "jerk" whose company Sid does not enjoy. Megan says that Wain is lonely and, while it's true that he's a jerk, he isn't all of the time. Sid eventually meets his birthmother in Victoria, and all concerned agree that Wain will spend the rest of his summer holiday at Sid's home. And, by the end of Three Little Words, Fariza Megan and Caleb's current foster child is speaking.

     Sarah Harvey's Three Little Words is a finely crafted, thought-provoking, and hopeful look into the reality of neglect, mental illness, abuse, and abandonment. Each chapter title in the novel consists of three little words, such as "Have a Heart," "Make My Day," "No Such Luck" and "When Pigs Fly." At the start of the novel, Fariza's limited vocabulary consists of "please," "thank you", and the first words that she shares with her entire foster family are "corn is good." That said, this reader believes the title ultimately refers to those most important three little words, "I love you." Though never stated in the novel, their significance is implied throughout.

      Harvey brings the two BC islands to life, deftly weaving settings into her character development. For instance, at the beginning of the story, Sid is preoccupied with drawing his comic about Billy, a poor boy, shunned by all in his village. During his trip to Victoria to help find Wain, for the first time ever, Sid "wants to record [by drawing] everything he has seen [that] day: Enid in her Geisha costume, Milo's battered face, the sign at the drop in centre, the sailboat gliding under the raised bridge." Ripple Rock, located north of Campbell River and mentioned a number of times, serves as a metaphor for the theme, what lies beneath surface appearances. Sid tells Elizabeth, "Whenever we go through the narrows, Caleb always says He's still down there, like the rock's a giant or a monster, but, to be honest, there's not much to see. It's way below the surface now, even at low tide."

     Central characters Wain, Phil, Chloe, Fariza, Caleb, and Megan are unique and convincing, as are the peripheral characters. Sid is intelligent, interesting, and likeable. He is also incredibly knowledgeable when it comes to baby-boomer music. Chloe calls him "a musical dinosaur." Another time, Wain says, "Trust you to know all the words to that dumb hippy song. What are you sixty?" Sid can also sing songs from The Mikado and is familiar with the Bloomsbury Group, thanks to Megan's book club. And Sid is thoughtful. For instance, when he's on a ferry with Elizabeth, his hang-gliding Gray Matter Granny, he thinks, "The last thing they need is for Elizabeth to fall and break a hip." At times, Sid's general knowledge, maturity, and empathy are so impressive for his age that this reader both sensed the voice of the author and found her credulity pushed a little too far.

     Readers of Three Little Words will be sure to relate to some of the characters and circumstances in this touching story.

Highly Recommended.

Karen Rankin is a Toronto, ON, teacher and writer of children's stories.

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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