________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 4 . . . . October 12, 2007


The Black Sheep.

Yvonne Collins & Sandy Rideout.
New York, NY: Hyperion, 2007.
348 pp., cloth, $19.99.
ISBN 978-1-4231-0156-7.

Subject Headings:
Reality television program - Fiction.
Otters - Fiction.
Wildlife rescue - Fiction.

Grades 6-9 / Ages 11-15.

Review by Caitlin J. Berry.

** /4


“Kendra Bishop?” a woman’s voice asks...“Bob, get a close-up,” the smile says. Someone reaches out and pulls my hand away from my eye. Congratulations, Kendra, you are the new Black Sheep!”

Squinting, I make a out a horde of people on the stoop. Front and center is the owner of the smile, a short, pretty woman in a suit, with shiny dark hair and rimless glasses. A massive bald man stands beside her with a camera on his shoulder, on top of which is the light. Another man shoves a microphone at me.

“The new what?” I ask. There must be some mistake.

“Black Sheep,” she repeats. “The reality show. I’m JudyGreenberg. Oneoftheproducers.” She speaks so fast her words run together.

“You mean I’m on TV?”

“You will be soon. Just give us a week to edit the footage.”I glance down at my blue-and-white Tommy Hilfiger pajamas, which I put on right after school to save time later. My hair is stringy and in a ponytail. “I should change.”

“Don’t. We want to capture the real Kendra.”

Fifteen-year old New Yorker, Kendra Bishop, is fed-up with her restrictive, lackluster home-life. Her dullard (and emotionally distant) banker parents have so many rules, she may as well be living in a juvenile detention center. And with summer’s arrival, Kendra’s only scintillating activity to look forward to is (drum roll please)... Math camp.

     Kendra, therefore, is in shock when the production crew of the teen reality show, The Black Sheep, appears at her doorstep. While it’s true that, months ago, she had written to the producers (in a fit of desperation) pleading that they choose her to be one of the teens who swaps families for a month, she hadn’t actually thought she would be chosen. Nonetheless, the crew is there and camera-in-face to stay.      

     They fly her to Monterey Bay, California, where she moves in with the Mulligans, a true-blue hippy family with five children and a ferret. Although at first a little out of her highbrow element, Kendra begins to settle into her new earthy digs. But settling in is not what the show’s cutthroat producer, Judy Greenberg, wants. Judy wants (and needs) ratings. Conflict and drama make for good television – getting along happily does not -- and good TV is just what Judy will stop at nothing to get. Hey, that’s showbiz.

     The Mulligans then convince Kendra to join SORAC (the Sea Otter Research and Conservation program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium) to help save endangered otter habitat (the Mulligans’ longtime cause). At first unsure, Kendra, over time, does begin to care about the endangered little critters. Using the reality series to truly help the environment, Kendra seems to have found her calling; her previous life of tedium a distant memory.

     Yet, despite having found herself, the battle has seemingly just begun: Kendra still must deal with Judy, who -- exploiting anything with a pulse for ratings -- stages a movement for Kendra to “divorce her parents” (America votes!); Kendra braves the pitfalls of teen romance (she develops a secret romance with the Mulligans’ son, Mitch); she transcends the confusion of newfound fame; she challenges the patriarchal and environmental hating establishment; Kendra even treads on the toes of SORAC who isn’t quite sure they want a camera crew tromping through their delicate ecosystem for the sake of publicity. Whew! That’s a lot for a 15-year-old to handle.

     Yet if anyone can handle it, Kendra Bishop finds she can. All the upheaval causes her to grow in ways she couldn’t have previously imagined; it brings she and her parents closer together (despite the almost divorce), and rather than simply making a spoiled star out of her, being on a reality series, in the end, has helped to solidify and distill her true self: even if she is a Black Sheep.

     The Black Sheep does not pretend to be highbrow children’s literature, nor does it even try to be, and this is its immediate salvation. Once one realizes, and comes to terms with this fact, one can’t help but find Kendra’s gumption, strong voice (albeit wise for her age, but – hey—she’s from Manhattan) and acerbic wit catching. Additionally, the supporting characters are equally alive and virtually charge through the page; Judy Greenberg, who speaks of herself in third-person, is deliciously villainous, comical and, scarily, not off the mark for Hollywood.

     That said, there are times when, in the first-person present tense narration, Kendra feels somewhat disembodied in comparison to the others (rarely do we get a real sense of what she looks like, except that she is skinny and beige-haired), and indeed, there is a rather liberal dose of contrivance and didacticism to the plot, as well as predictability to the ending.

     There is nothing completely remarkable about The Black Sheep, and the crafting could have used some more help: perhaps some tightening and (sorry) shearing of volume as, once in a while, it did seem to drag on, specifically in regards to SORAC. Although the otter cause was quaint, at times it felt as if the stakes weren’t weighty (or compelling) enough to carry so much of the plot. The beginning is written choppily, and the direct insertion of Kendra’s four-page letter to the producers of The Black Sheep unnecessarily risks losing the audience’s interest altogether.

     However, Collins and Rideout are onto something by writing about the experience of a reality series, which is high concept and intriguing enough to be a hook in itself. And, as said to begin with, literary writing is not what makes the novel work, but rather, its unpretentiousness, blatant self-knowledge of genre, and ability to get out of the way of itself (which is not necessarily easy to do). The Black Sheep is a feel good novel with an assertive message about proudly being different despite societal pressures. Kendra is a conflicted and strong female character who, undeniably, is a good role model for teenage girls of the new generation. Although one reads the ending rolling one’s eyes, admittedly, it’s out of loyalty to a higher literary god. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a lift now and again, even if it is suspiciously cosmetic.

Recommended with reservations.

Caitlin Berry is a graduate of Vermont College’s Master in Fine Arts in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults program. She is also a guest reviewer for The Horn Book Magazine.

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

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