________________ CM . . . . Volume VIII Number 19 . . . . May 24, 2002

cover Cairo Kelly & the Mann.

Kristin Butcher.
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2002.
172 pp., pbk., $8.95.
ISBN 1-55143-211-0.

Grades 4-7 / Ages 9-12.

Review by Lisa Doucet.

*** /4


I gazed down the line at the other guys. Most of them looked like they were about to face a firing squad. I squinted across the field at the Panthers. They didn't look any better. Finally the officials came out - three of them for the playoffs instead of the usual two - and it was time to start the game. "Let's play ball!" the home plate umpire shouted, and the excited crowd roared its approval. I took a deep breath. This was it. But instead of taking our positions on the field like we were supposed to, we all stayed right where we were. None of the Rebels moved a muscle. The Panthers held their ground too."Play ball," the umpire called again. He might as well have been talking to the backstop.

Midge and his best friend, Kelly Romani, are mischievous with a capital M! This is evident from the opening line of Kristin Butcher's new novel, Cairo Kelly & the Mann, which reads, "I swear on my baseball glove - Kelly and I had nothing to do with that fire." With this attention-grabbing introduction to her story, Butcher brings her readers into the mind and heart of Michael Ridge, better known as Midge. Midge and Kelly, best friends from childhood, both live for baseball. While their school files readily attest to their penchant for practical jokes and troublemaking behaviour, both boys are quite serious when it comes to their chosen sport. In fact, Kelly is an outstanding pitcher whose natural talent could lead to big things for him. And both boys are excited about the pending playoffs. However, their enthusiasm is dimmed considerably when the boys learn that Hal Mann, the best umpire in the league, will no longer be officiating because of his refusal to write a new test. Angered by the injustice of the situation, Midge and Kelly rally the troops and convince their teammates, along with the other teams in the league, to protest this decision by refusing to play. When the officials refuse to back down on their stance, the boys have to reconsider. Are they willing to forfeit their chances of winning the playoffs by continuing their protest? Or can they possibly convince Hal to just write the test? When the boys confront Hal with this option, he finally admits the truth - he can't read! Shocked by this revelation, they nevertheless refuse to abandon their friend, and, while the solution they come up with is morally questionable, there is never any question of the "rightness" of their intentions.

     This is a very simple yet engaging plot that never really falters and will undoubtedly hold considerable appeal for 9 to 12-year-old boys. The uncomplicated storyline and straightforward writing style, along with the subject matter, also make this a great book for reluctant readers. Midge's voice is warm and winsome, and readers will enjoy reading the story from his point of view. I thought it was also interesting to be seeing things through the eyes of one of the "bad boys" in the class. So often in books, the classroom troublemakers are portrayed as mean-spirited, bullying types. Consequently, it is a refreshing change to be in the troublemaker's shoes in this book and getting his perspective. All of the characters are well-drawn, likeable and believable, although the way they spoke led me to believe that they were younger (9 or 10-ish). In particular, I thought that Butcher did a wonderful job of bringing her secondary characters to life: people like Mrs. Buttermann, Kelly's mother and Midge's parents were very realistic despite their minor roles in the story.

     While the story revolves around baseball, it also touches on some other interesting issues. Without sounding preachy, Butcher adeptly reveals Hal Mann's illiteracy and the problems it has created for him over the years. As Hal shares his secret with Midge and Kelly, they and the reader realize that Hal was not a stupid man but simply managed to make it through school without ever acquiring even basic reading skills, a shortcoming which has proven more costly than he ever could have imagined. Another significant revelation in the story occurs when Kelly admits to Midge his own feelings of inadequacy because he is poor and has never had a real father, things which have made him feel inferior to his classmates. With simple directness, Midge makes a startlingly profound statement when he reflects on the fact that, for all these years, his classmates have all envied and idolized Kelly because he was different and meanwhile all Kelly ever wanted was to be like them. Young readers will easily identify with Kelly's feelings and will be given much to think about. And Midge's discovery that, for all his mischief, he does actually have principles and can find the inner resources necessary to act on and stand up for those principles adds yet another dimension to this story. However, all such reflections aside, the main reason that young readers will like this story is because it is fun and familiar. Anyone who has ever been involved in minor league sports will be able to relate to this light-hearted tale. It would also make a great novel to read in a class given that there are so many interesting avenues for discussiion and that it will hold the interest of most members of the class. It is a delightful summer read and a notable addition to the genre of sports fiction for young readers.


Lisa Doucet is a children's bookseller at Woozles in Halifax, NS.

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

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Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364