CM . . .
. Volume XX Number 25. . . .February 28, 2014
Nine-year old Theo is a voracious reader who lives in her imagination and in the stories and books she reads. Living in poverty in Vancouver, with a young, immature, self-centered mother, Theo finds her life to be hard. Although her mother works, there is never enough money to go around, and Theo wears tattered clothes, worn-out shoes and is often hungry. Because Theo and her mother move around a lot, Theo has no real friends and is very much an introverted child. She is also frequently left alone at night when her mother, Rae, is at work, or out with her boyfriend. Theo escapes her life by delving into books and living in the stories and with the characters she encounters. Theo longs for another life – a better life. She dreams of being part of a big, happy family like the ones she reads about in her library books.
Along with Theo, there is another central, but invisible, character in the book, a ghost named Cecily. Although Theo is unaware of Cecily for most of the story, the ghost works some magic, and Theo is drawn into the kind of family she has always wished for – a large, cheerful family with two boys and two girls, with a “space for her” in the middle of them. It is the perfect family, and, for the first time, Theo has nice, brand new clothes to wear, lots of good food to eat, loving and physical parents who love and accept her, and exciting and adventurous things to do with hew new siblings. This family lives in Cecily’s former residence where Cecily still restlessly resides. Although at first Theo loves being part of the Kaldor family, she wonders about what kind of magic has allowed her to experience the love and excitement of this family. She also ponders whether or not she is awake or dreaming, and if she can stay with the Kaldor family forever, or if the magic will disappear.
Awake and Dreaming, first published in 1996, won the General General’s Literary Award for Children’s Literature. This new edition offers an introduction by Kenneth Oppel, the award-winning author of several children’s and young adult novels. In addition, several addenda are found at the end of the novel, including a short biography of the author, a list and short explanation of the characters in the novel, discussion questions and activities for teachers and young readers to ponder, and a list of the titles and short annotations of the books mentioned within the novel, of which there are a dozen.
Oppel’s introduction to the book helps set the tone for the story and introduces the reader to Theo. An interesting read, Oppel’s introduction gives insight into his childhood reading. As he suggests, Theo is a hero, but not the kind of hero one might expect since Theo is shy and quiet and battered by her life’s circumstances. At first, Theo does not appear to be made of hero material; however, she grows, and, in the end, comes to realize that, lacking or not, she does have a family made up of real people, and she can help make it better.
The addenda at the back of the book are interesting and could be used by teachers to enhance discussion of the book. The ideas for extending the novel would help teachers to plan a novel study around the book. Young readers might also appreciate learning more about the author and perusing the list of characters in the book, of which there are many. They might also be interested in reading the one or two sentence descriptions about the books within the book that the author weaves into the novel.
Awake and Dreaming is recommended with some reservations. The reason for this is that, although the book is well-written and has a captivating story with a ghost, magic and dreaming, with very likeable characters, it is almost twenty years old. The few mentions of technology in the book are dated and caused this reader to be pulled out of the story long enough to wonder if younger readers would know what a VCR is. More importantly, the story is filled with many references to wonderful novels, many of which are no longer in print or are now difficult to find. Indeed, I read many of the novels myself, as a child, and I do admit they were among my favourites, as I, too, like Theo, was searching for that “perfect” family. However, even if a young reader wanted to follow up and read some of the books, she would be hard pressed to find them. (I did my research here, searching my own school library and the public library, and could find very few of the titles mentioned in the story.)
Background knowledge to the other books mentioned helped make this story, and Theo’s longing for a “real” family, more meaningful for me. Had I not had the background knowledge of The Moffats, All-of-a-Kind-Family, and Half Magic, to name a few, I wonder if I would have been able to relate as closely to Theo. I do not think I would have enjoyed the story as much had I not been able to recall the characters and adventures of the stories mentioned within this book.
For teachers who might be planning to use this novel, a lot of discussion would need to be had around some of the other books mentioned so that students could better make connections with Theo and the story.
Recommended with Reservations.
Mary Harelkin Bishop is the author of seven books and is most well-known for the “Tunnels of Moose Jaw” time travel adventures. Currently, she is employed as a Literacy Teacher for Saskatoon Public Schools where spends most of her time working with teachers and students at Princess Alexandra Community School.
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