________________ CM . . . . Volume XIII Number 4 . . . . October 13, 2006


Ryan and Jimmy and the Well in Africa That Brought Them Together.

Herb Shoveller.
Toronto, ON: Kids Can Press, 2006.
56pp., cloth, $18.95.
ISBN 1-55337-967-5.

Subject Headings:
Hreljac, Ryan-Juvenile literature.
Ryan’s Well Foundation-Juvenile literature.
Wells-Africa-Juvenile literature.
International cooperation-Juvenile literature.

Grades 5-9 / Ages 10-14.

Review by J. Lynn Fraser.

**** /4

Wishing wells traditionally are places where wishes are made but may or may not come true. The well in Herb Shoveller’s book shows a wish for a well in Uganda that was made by a Grade 1 student named Ryan Hreljac from Kemptville, ON, became a dream that changed the life of thousands of people. What prevents this story from becoming saccharine is the matter of fact telling of the story by Shoveller. While the reader sees the realization of a dream for a well in a small village in Uganda, the reader is also shown the harsh reality of life for the men and women and children in that village. They must cope with harsh living conditions:

Sometimes the water was brown and smelled bad. “You drank it because you were thirsty,” Jimmy says. “You closed your eyes and held your nose. You did it because there was nothing else.”

     As well, the villagers had to live with the prospect of being murdered or kidnapped by members of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) who are still active in Uganda today.      

     This book has many strengths. In straightforward and clear conversational prose, the author shows the practical steps Ryan needed to take to earn money toward any wish/goal. Cooperation and commitment are themes of this story. In this case, Shoveller reveals how much money was needed to be raised for a well, how a young boy did chores to raise that money, and how his enthusiasm and commitment inspired others to donate time, money and expertise to make a dream come true.

     Readers learn how the shortage of school supplies at the Angolo Primary School in Agweo, Uganda, where the well is built, means that the children in the school there must share and cooperate with each other:

Before Ryan’s well was build, there were several hundred kids at the school. A year and a half later, there were two thousand students from all over…all because of the well. …The school had books, but they had to be shared, which became more difficult as the number of students grew. Everyone had to cooperate.

     As readers learn about the evolution of Ryan’s wish, they also see Ryan mature as he must talk about the well with various individuals and groups to raise money. Readers also learn about Akana Jimmy who becomes Ryan’s pen pal, then his friend, and later his brother as one sees the LRA’s tactics and their effect on Jimmy directly through the loss of family members who looked after him when his parents disappeared, and on Uganda’s inability to function as a stable country due to the LRA’s murdering and kidnapping Ugandan citizens.

     In the book, readers see Jimmy survive his harsh life due to the protection of his extended family and the village he comes from as well as by his own intelligence and bravery. In Canada, he learns a new language and adapts to a strange country. He evolves into a young man who has dreams of becoming a teacher or a lawyer.

     Another strength of the book’s structure is the author’s pacing of the story and his contrasting life in Canada with that in Uganda. Family lives are compared, access to water and education in Canada and Uganda are juxtaposed, as are the realities of life in Uganda and Canada. Throughout the book, the coming together of two boys, who bonded immediately with each other, is a golden thread that stitches together their two lives and keeps readers involved. Shoveller’s pacing, suspense building, ability to convey the personalities and thoughts of Ryan and Jimmy, and easy language also keep the story’s narrative fresh and real.

     The book, itself, is handsome. Large clear photographs and drawings give the reader a sense of the individuals, communities, and countries involved. The images have a heavy black border that echoes the colourful graphics that border every page. The book’s pages are also bright and give a sense both of a child’s scrapbook and of African art as well. The overall impression is bright, lively and engaging.

     This book demonstrates that the wish for a well or any dream can come true but that goals are reached with cooperation, setbacks are met with patience and hard work, and that goals are reached by a series of planned steps and mutual cooperation. It shows that ordinary people---especially children---can do wonderful and life changing things. Intelligence, cooperation and kindness are held up as important values and as the building blocks of projects, families, and communities. Foremost, this book gives insight into what hope, dedication, and friendship can achieve.

Highly Recommended.

Located in Toronto, ON, J. Lynn Fraser is a freelance writer and editor whose magazine articles appear in national and international publications.


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

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