CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 5 . . . .October 27, 2006
The Year of the Secret Assignments.
New York, NY: Scholastic (Distributed in Canada by Scholastic Canada), 2004.
340 pp., pbk., $10.99.
Grades 6-9 / Ages 11-14.
Review by Ann Ketcheson.
"Mr. Botherit is waving his hands to indicate that he wants to speak.
Let's see what he has to say.
Mr. Botherit is an idiot.
What he has to say is that we have now finished Larkin, so next week, we will begin the Famous Ashbury-Brookfield Pen Pal Project. Specifically, we will write letters to students at Brookfield High, and they will become our pen pals. 'And this,' he says (whispering for dramatic effect), 'will kill two birds with one stone!'
('Don't you dare kill any birds,' Sasha Perkins said passionately.)
Mr. Botherit is holding one finger in the air: 'A,' he is saying, 'it will reduce the hostility between our schools! And two,' he holds up a second finger, 'and two, it will be our stand against the tyranny of technology! By sending letters, we say no to e-mails! No to mobile technology and texting!! And yes to the Joy of the Envelope!'
Mr. Botherit, as I said, is an idiot. He's trying to be funny, but he can't hide the fact that he's not.
He also can't hide the fact that he just said A and then two. A lot of people are now offering to teach him the alphabet.
Meanwhile, the rest of the class is in an uproar. Some people are upset because their mobile phones have been insulted. Most people are upset about having to write to Brookfield. Mr. B. already tried this last year, and many students ended up dead. Or, anyway, unhappy."
Surprises and chaos become the norm when three upper-class girls from Ashbury High begin writing to their pen pals at Brookfield, a working class school. In no time, Moriarty brings her six principal characters to life, each with a distinctive voice and personality. Emily, Lydia and Cassie are best friends in grade ten and deal with all of the ups and downs of life at that age: chocolate, shopping, boys, parents, teachers. As well as their somewhat superficial concerns, they also cope with emotional issues such as Cassie's reaction after the death of her father. Moriarty uses vivid if sometimes insolent language and situations which enliven her characters and help readers feel they know and care about them. The girls' three pen pals, Charlie, Seb and Matthew, help to bring a male perspective to various situations.
Most of the novel is epistolary, but Moriarty varies the tempo by including diary entries, e-mails, bulletin board memos and Lydia's Notebook T which is helping her fulfill her dream of being an author. Most sections of the book are only a page or two in length, making this an excellent young adult novel for younger readers or students who have difficulty with long chapters or 'too many words' on a page.
The letter format allows readers to see the same story from a variety of viewpoints. In fact, problems or questions raised in one letter are often answered elsewhere by a different character. Moriarty's plot is quick-paced, imaginative and comic and includes some flirting and romance, lots of school pranks, and a mystery. Just who is pen pal Matthew Dunlop? Does he even exist?
The setting is Australian, but aside from a few minor references, this is of little importance. The characters could be anyone, anywhere, and the school situations are typical of any secondary school, if a little far-fetched to bolster the zany plot. In the book, parents and teachers are entirely peripheral characters and become almost caricatures. The world of the students is, therefore, the 'real' world.
The ending is rather disappointing and perhaps predictable, but it does, at least, neatly tie together the strands of the plot and answer readers' questions. The illustration of the front cover is rather juvenile and doesn't do justice to the novel. These criticisms aside, Moriarty has written a book which is funny to the point of outrageous and which will certainly appeal to young teen readers.
Ann Ketcheson is a former teacher-librarian and teacher of high school English and French. She lives in Ottawa, ON.
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