________________ CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 39. . . .June 10, 2011.


Odd Ball.

Arthur John Stewart.
Saskatoon, SK: Thistledown Press, 2011.
186 pp., pbk., $12.95.
ISBN 978-1-897235-88-1.

Grades 5-8 / Ages 10-13.

Review by Vikki VanSickle.





I donít think I can do much on my own, but Iím pretty sure I could be of help to someone who can do somethingósomeone with brains and courage and characterómaybe even someone who doesnít realize how strong and influential he can be. I could help somebody like that . . . and I actually have the beginning of a plan in my head. Thatís when I see Jobbi come slumping down the hallway toward me. His head is hanging down and he has what looks like an oversized chinstrap on his face, the kind you use to keep a football helmet on your head.

Odd Ball is easy to read. The story is divided into short narrative sections told from the perspective of a number of kids in grade eight at Central Middle School: Kevin, a hero for the geeks; Paula, a troubled girl who experiments with a new, sexy image and gets a lot of unwanted attention; Stephanie, who is desperate for a change; Soon Lee, whose mixed heritage and shy nature keep her apart from her peers; and Jobbi, a recent Latvian immigrant who becomes a target for bullies. The multiple perspectives keep the story interesting, but there are a few too many narrators. There isnít enough time spent with some of the characters to warrant this kind of focus. Soon Lee, for example, only has two chapters from her perspective.

     Like many schools, Central Middle School is besieged by bullies, violence, and apathy. Stephanie believes that all of her schoolís problems can be fixed by a dance, but she worries that she doesnít have the kind of leadership skills necessary to make it happen. But, with the help of Kevin and Jobbi, who has a strange ability to play matchmaker, she may stand a chance.

     There are a number of subplots in the novel, but most of them culminate in the Odd Ball dance. Jobbiís story, which includes a history of his grandmotherís matchmaking ability in Valmiera, his current situation as a potential hockey star, and his cousinís surprise return to Valmiera to help clear the names of Jobbiís parents who have been falsely accused in a wedding scam, is the most intriguing and evokes the most emotion. Author Arthur John Stewart suggests that the ability to make good romantic matches is hereditary, providing an almost magical element to the story that was unexpected.

     The writing is clear and engaging, and the short sections keep the story moving along at a quick clip. Some of the dialogue feels phony or forced, and it is difficult to pin down when exactly the story takes place, as some of the pop cultural references feel dated (The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek Voyager). Ultimately, I connected with many of the characters, and overall the portrayal of a middle school in crisis is relatable.

     Each of the storylines is tied up together very neatly at the end, avoiding any major conflict or confrontation. Given the novelís prologueó a beautifully written, almost magical section about intuitionóin addition to the Cinderella themes and culminating ball, Odd Ball feels like a modern fairytale. This is a good way to think about Odd Ball, which is, otherwise, a contemporary realistic drama that hints at, but ultimately avoids, any harsh realities. For these reasons, Odd Ball is a great read for slightly younger readers (Grades 4-6) who like to read up but are perhaps not ready for the gravitas and dire circumstances of some contemporary YA. The happy ending will definitely satisfy some readers but perhaps leave others wanting more.

Recommended with reservations.

Vikki VanSickle holds a Masters degree in Childrenís Literature from the University of British Columbia. She is the author of the middle grade novel, Words That Start with B, and the upcoming sequel, Love is a Four Letter Word.

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

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