CM . . .
. Volume XI Number 19 . . . . May 27, 2005
Trading identities has always been a theme in children’s literature. Of course, the characters that switch invariably make mistakes and are unmasked; they also miss what they formerly rejected and long for the people and places that are familiar.
In Somebody Else’s Summer, Jean Little has made her own attempt to recreate a Prince and the Pauper or Parent Trap scenario. Alex and Sam are modern day 11-year-olds, both from Vancouver. They don’t look anything alike, but what they have in common is that each is being sent to stay in Guelph, Ontario, with family friends neither has met. Each is being sent to a situation she hates, and each envies the situation the other is headed for.
Sam and Alex make their pact on the plane. It turns out the two host families know each other, and Sam and Alex can meet to swap stories. An elderly neighbour, Mr. Carr, finds out the truth right away and becomes their confidant.
There are many other complications to the girls’ lives – Alex’s money-minded, divorced mother has remarried and announces in a letter that they are moving to Australia. Sam’s roommate, Bethany, is a hormonal, rude adolescent who makes Sam’s visit unpleasant. Each girl discovers that she feels awkward living a lie, but they can’t figure out how to undo what they have started.
When Mr. Carr dies, the girls discover his hidden secret, a parrot that mimics his dead wife’s voice. The parrot’s fate seems linked to Alex’s. After the truth is revealed, everything falls happily into place.
The premise is interesting, but the reader must accept some unlikely assumptions. Today, there are few families who don’t or can’t phone back and forth across the country – there are more cheap long distance plans than can be counted. But right at the outset, Sam’s grandmother announces she won’t be able to write to Sam in Guelph, so they cannot communicate. And Sam, a typical 11-year-old, accepts this pronouncement. Similarly, Alex’s mother has gone off to Australia and uses the time change as the excuse for never contacting her. E-mail and messaging are not even mentioned.
The reader must also accept some dialogue that seems to be out of a previous era. Many people do try to use correct grammar, but I don’t know of anyone, even the oldest relative, who says, “It is I” in a telephone conversation. Wearing jeans and a sloppy shirt, Sam observes Alex’s stepfather: “Would you call him a dandy?” she muses. Alex comments later, “I keep expecting something dire to happen?” - hardly words used by contemporary Grade 6 students.
The sudden appearance of Alex’s father is just too coincidental, not to mention his choice of pet. The solution to Alex’s problems is so neat that it’s too good to be true.
Jean Little has written more than 40 books since 1962 when she won the Little Brown Canadian Childrens' Book Award for her first publication, Mine for Keeps. She has published six books in the last two years alone. Her books include children’s picture books to short stories and poems to novels for younger adolescents. Her books fill shelves of school libraries, and she has received accolades, including the Order of Canada, for her contributions to children’s literature in this country.
That’s why it’s disappointing to find these fairly obvious faults in what should be a fun adventure for contemporary kids. Sharper editing should have addressed these issues. Both elements need to be refined for this story to be something children will want to read through.
Recommended with reservations.
Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian 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.