CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 24. . . .February 25th, 2010.
Better Than Weird.
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2011.
218 pp., pbk., $9.95.
Grades 3-5 / Ages 8-10.
Review by Karen Rankin.
**** / 4
Ms. Masilo [the music teacher] placed Aaron at the very top of the last riser. The height made him feel a little dizzy. When Tufan came to stand beside him, he felt worse.
“There isn’t room to stand shoulder to shoulder,” Ms. Masilo told the class. “Angle yourselves toward the centre.”
Everybody shifted. Aaron began to feel locked in by the boy who stood in front of his face, and by Tufan, who stood at his back, close enough that the sound of his raspy breathing filled Aaron’s ears. He imagined that breath around his head, warm and moist, rich with the smell of unfamiliar spices. He could see it: a fine cloud settling over him. He closed his eyes.
Ms. Masilo blew into her pitch pipe. She hummed. The class hummed back.
“Watch me now,” she said. “Aaron! Are you watching, Aaron?”
Aaron’s eyes opened.
“When my hands go up, you take a breath. When my hands come down, you start. I want that first note strong and clear. Together now,” she said. Her hands went up. Everybody took a breath. The sound of it filled the room.
“No! No! No!” she shouted from behind her smile. “A silent breath. Take a silent breath. The audience doesn’t want to hear you suck air.”
When they finished, [Ms. Masilo’s] smile grew wider. As big as tombstones, Aaron thought as he looked at Ms. Masilo’s teeth. That’s what his Gran had said when his baby teeth fell out and the new teeth came in. Your teeth are as big as tombstones. But then he grew and his face got bigger and his teeth didn’t look so big anymore. He wondered if Ms. Masilo’s face was going to grow to match her teeth. She’d have an enormous head if it did. He imagined Ms. Masilo’s head as big as a beach ball. He swayed, picturing the head floating above her body. He saw her teeth standing straight and tall at the end of a row of graves. The images made him giggle.
“Stop laughing, turkey,” Tufan hissed.
Aaron jumped. He’d forgotten about Tufan. He glanced back. The sight of Tufan’s frowning face made his stomach tighten. He looked away.
Eleven-year-old Aaron Waite has a lot of energy and boundless imagination. Most of his classmates call him “Aaron Cantwait.” Some just call him “weird.” Aaron lives with his grandma, who says he’s “just a little different.” He hasn’t seen his father since his mother died eight years ago. When Better Than Weird begins, Aaron is counting down the last 12 days before his father finally arrives for a visit. He has prepared two lists: “Things Dad will teach me,” and, “Things to do with Dad.” He is afraid that, as Tufan – his biggest tormentor – once said, “His dad’s gonna take one look and disappear all over again.” In preparation for his father’s visit, Aaron decides to prove that he’s not weird, that he can be good. He joins the Winter Concert so that his dad will see him performing and be proud. He also tries hard to focus on completing his school work, and he writes a “How to stop being weird” list. However, he continues to make mistakes, such as laughing inappropriately, knocking over the classroom aquarium, and blurting truths that, from his few friends’ perspectives, are best left unsaid. Although Tufan continues to bully him, Aaron’s self-discipline is noticed by his teacher and his Gran, both of whom give him more responsibility. As a result, Aaron’s self-esteem grows.
When his dad finally arrives, he’s not everything that Aaron expected. But, Aaron sees that his dad loves him, and he is relieved and happy when he realizes that his dad intends to stay in his life. Meanwhile, Ms. Masilo, the choir director, has made it clear that Aaron is not wanted in her choir. He and Tufan are persuaded by their teacher to work together on an introduction for the choir. Armed with his new self-confidence, Aaron is able to put a stop to the bullying. He and Tufan produce an introduction to the Winter Concert that would make any parent proud.
Better Than Weird is a stand-alone sequel to Anna Kerz’s excellent Mealworm Diaries. Aaron is a credible, well-rounded character, as are Gran, Tufan, Dad, and all of the other characters. Better Than Weird is simply told, yet rich with wonderful metaphors and believable surprises. Kerz’s style makes this a story that will appeal to readers of all levels.
Karen Rankin is a Toronto, ON, teacher and writer of children's stories.
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