CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 20. . . . June 6, 2003
He should have died then. But he didn't die. He came sputtering to the surface to find that the boat filled with refugees was gone. His family was gone. His life, as he knew it, was over.
Later, another boat picked him up. It brought him to another refugee camp where he began to piece together a new life. ("Scarface")
Republished under new titles (originally published in the late 1980's and 1990's), these five high interest controlled vocabulary novels are extremely short, emotional stories that gallop through action-packed plot lines centered around teen problems. Like all similar books, they are written to attract neophyte teen readers who need lots of immediate action in a straight narrative style, a strong, simple moral with a clear ending, and very little description.
The plot line in Hitting the Road is so unbelievable that even unsophisticated readers will be incredulous. Matt, 16, agrees to run away with Cody, 13, when he can't talk him out of leaving home. Although Matt knows of better solutions, he ignores them in order to teach Cody the hard truth of "life on the road." It's difficult to imagine a sillier reaction from an older teen. No adult or police officer looks for them either. In Scarface, Tranh learns to ski in a morning. Not only is this event unlikely to happen with a Canadian teen who is used to snow, it is even more unlikely with an immigrant teen. On the other hand, Scarface is touching because of 19-year-old Thanh's heart-rending history. The cheerful camaraderie of the black boys in Street Scene is palpable, and Dwayne's death is so sad even if it is predictable. Maddy's bitter, ironic look at divorce in My Broken Family will provoke a knowing nod from many younger teens. Jes' struggle to succeed at the school wrestling team in Tag Team is a realistic look at how difficult it is to learn a new sport and control your emotions.
The vocabulary level of these books is very low - approximately grade 3-4, but the characters are all teenagers. Although the language is occasionally striking (see excerpt for the best example), most of the sentences are short and simple to advance the plot and allow for short attention spans. Unfortunately, there are far too many copy editing errors that should have been caught originally, let alone in a second edition. Sometimes the narrative voice slips into slang or worse yet, grammatical error. Beginning readers have enough difficulty distinguishing between voice and narration. Let's not confuse them by using terms like "a couple cans" instead of "a couple of cans" or "us new kids" or "mom and me waited" in narrative. Dialogue is another matter, and Kropp accurately portrays the black voice through the voices of Jamel and his friends.
The covers are critical for high interest books. The cover of Street Scene is exceptional and will draw older boys like a magnet. Tag Team and My Broken Family will attract a younger audience, and Scarface will appeal to Asian immigrant teens. The car buffs may be mistakenly drawn to Hitting the Road by the old car in the background.
Many beginning teen readers in Canada today are immigrants, and many of them are from very traditional cultures and families. It is disappointing that these books represent Canadian culture as brutal, bullying and full of sensational, gratuitous or racist violence. The stereotypes of the spoiled rich boy and the jeering bullying father pop up because there isn't space to develop character, but surely we could publish some high interest stories that are not violence, gang and runaway related.
If you have to buy these books to jumpstart your beginning teen readers, think of them in the same way primary teachers consider "I Can Read" books - books to read through quickly to gain confidence. How fast can you get them beyond this series and hook them on books by Carol Frechette (In the Key of Do), Louis Sachar (Holes), Ishbel Moore (Dolina May) and Mary Ann Scott (Eyewitness, and New Girl)? Have these other books ready when your students have slurped down the "New Series Canada" and are hungry for reading with more lyrical language, complex characters and realistic plot and settings.
Recommended with reservations.
Joan Marshall is the teacher-librarian at Fort Richmond Collegiate in Winnipeg, MB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.