________________ CM . . . . Volume XII Number 3 . . . . September 30, 2005


The Isabel Factor.

Gayle Friesen.
Toronto, ON: Kids Can Press, 2005.
252 pp., pbk. & cl., $8.95 (pbk.), $19.95 (cl.).
ISBN 1-55337-738-9 (pbk.), ISBN 1-55337-737-0 (cl.).

Subject Headings:
Camps - Juvenile fiction.
Friendships - Juvenile fiction.
Self-confidence - Juvenile fiction.

Grades 7-9 / Ages 12-14. Review by Leslie Vermeer.

*** /4


We watch as a girl enters the vehicle. The sunlight illuminates her cap of hair like she is a human color wheel. She takes the first empty seat without saying a word, but, as she pulls her backpack off, she looks straight at me and smiles.

It's not an ordinary smile. It's friendly enough - I guess it means she recognizes me from the ferry. (Maybe I wasn't as sneaky as I thought.) But there's something more in it. What's the word? It's definitely not your average, run-of-the-mill friendly smile. It is portentous - that's it: giving an omen or anticipatory sign. It bodes.


Fifteen-year-old Anna and her best friend Zoe are planning the best summer of their lives, to be spent as Counselors in Training at a West Coast camp - that is, until Zoe breaks her arm in three places. Now Anna is on her own and must learn to live away from the shadow of the extraordinary Zoe. When Anna befriends Isabel, a new, nonconforming camper, she risks earning the enmity of her old summer friends. The situation gets even more complicated when Zoe arrives unexpectedly, arm in a cast and expectations high. As the weeks pass, Anna learns about loyalty, fear, and integrity, and discovers that her inner resources are much deeper than she had first believed.

     Gayle Friesen gives the familiar summer-novel setting nice depth and richness. Anna is interested in reportage, encouraged by the school-year coaching of her English teacher, Mr. Hong, and she brings a fresh, appealing voice to her task. Much of the phrasing throughout the novel is original and delightful, and the chapter headings are a clever touch.

     The story moves at a quick pace, and the characters are interesting, if somewhat predictable. Big Jack, the camp leader, is a gentle giant with a heart of gold. Shell, the 20-year-old Cabin 7 counselor, exudes a somewhat frazzled calm as she leads the CITs through yoga and meditation, and we are not surprised when Anna stumbles upon Shell smoking on the beach. Karim, Anna's innocent crush, is just near enough to be tantalizing while just old enough to be off-limits. Anna observes character types well, and despite her "just the facts, ma'am" orientation, she learns to connect the "invisible story" to others' visible behavior.

     The novel is loaded with thoughtful commentary and positive messages. Although we see the story through Anna's eyes, several older characters - Anna's mom, Mr. Hong, Shell, Karim - offer straightforward wisdom about changing relationships and learning to like yourself. At times, the messages are knit a little awkwardly into the larger story, such as when Karim and Anna discuss moments that scare them, or when Anna's mother arrives for Visitors' Day with a pierced navel; more sophisticated readers may find this reinforcement of theme a little heavy-handed.

     Some of the darker themes typical of the problem novel are also present - Isabel is a child of divorce, while Jennifer's dad is too "important" to attend Visitors' Day - but they are peripheral to the main story. Anna discovers how cruel her peer group can be within a fairly comfortable and safe environment; this is a middle-class girl speaking to other middle-class girls. Still, Friesen does not take the easy road with Anna and Zoe. Although Anna learns some important lessons over the summer, she has more growing to do; even in the final pages, Anna still believes Zoe's ideas are more interesting than her own and Zoe's approval is more important than are Anna's accomplishments. Though perhaps troubling for adult readers, this small degree of growth will likely feel authentic to teen readers.

     My only complaint is with Anna's final reflection, in which she reviews the themes of the book rather mechanically, almost tritely. It's quite a disappointment after the fairly high standard of the rest of the novel. Surely any thoughtful reader would already have drawn these conclusions without needing the narrator to voice them explicitly. Otherwise, this is a likeable, accessible book that should appeal to a wide spectrum of young teens.

Leslie Vermeer is a doctoral candidate at the University of Alberta and an instructor at Grant MacEwan College in Edmonton, AB.

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

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