CM . . .
. Volume XIV Number 6 . . . .November 9, 2007
The Moon Children.
Calgary, AB: Red Deer Press, 2007.
140 pp., pbk., $9.95.
Fetal alcohol syndrome-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 4-7 / Ages 9-12.
Review by Dave Jenkinson.
Once again, Brenna demonstrates her superb ability to present the world as it is seen through the eyes of a central character with special learning needs. In Brenna's earlier YA novel, Wild Orchid, 18-year-old Taylor had Asperger's Syndrome, but in The Moon Children, the learning disability of Billy Ray, 11, is not directly identified in the story's text; however, Billy exhibits many characteristics which are associated with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), a "diagnosis" confirmed by the closing "Author's Note." Set in North Battleford, SK, the book's action spans but a single week, commencing on Friday, July 14, the day after Billy's alcoholic father, Zak, has again walked out on his pregnant wife, Chris, herself a recovering alcoholic who works as a cleaning woman at a nearby hotel. The Moon Children concludes on Thursday, July 20, the day of a talent contest in the local park and also the day when Billy believes his father will reenter his life by playing guitar and singing "Blue Suede Shoes" while Billy, as a contestant in the talent show, performs his repertoire of yoyo tricks.
Billy is one of the title's two moon children, and the appellation comes from Billy's moon-like facial features, one result of his FASD. Even Billy recognizes the connection.
Then one of the clouds shifted and the moon swelled into view, bigger than the other night, a golden, lopsided oval. He stood on the sidewalk and stared at it and as he looked, he thought he could see a face on the moon. The face of a boy with slanted eyes. A face like his own.
Essentially without friends among his age peers, Billy does have one adult friend, Mrs. Gladys Schmidt, who lives in the neighboring apartment with her husband who is dying of cancer. When Chris is at work, Billy often drops in and visits with Mrs. Schmidt who feeds him "leftover" pancakes and cookies. It is Mrs. Schmidt who provides Billy with some information about the book's other moon child, Natasha Jelnick Arnold, who lives in the big house across the street from the apartment block in which Billy resides. From Mrs. Schmidt, Billy learns that Natasha had been adopted from a Romanian orphanage by Mr. and Mrs. Arnold, owners of a local car dealership.
Though Billy has spent the last year in grade 5, his ability to read is virtually nonexistent, being limited to his being able to identify only his own name and a few short words like "and" and "the." Billy does recognize Natasha as being in the other grade 5 class at his school, but, when he crosses the street and sees that she's writing in a school notebook, he can't read what she's writing although he does recognize that she's dating her entries like they did in their school journals. He also observes that she has drawn the moon in its various phases next to the entries in what comes to be known as the Moon Journal. Billy finds communicating with Natasha to be a challenge because she can't, or won't, talk. Billy (and author Brenna) solve the one-way verbal communication problem by having Billy ask questions that require simple yes or no nods from Natasha or by his guessing at what her gestures or occasional drawings mean.
What comes to bring the two moon children together is the talent contest, with its twenty dollar first prize, that is to be held on Thursday. As Zak left the apartment on the previous Thursday, his parting words to Billy were: "If I don't see you in the future, I'll see you in the pasture." Not understanding the play on words, Billy takes "pasture" to mean "park" and concludes that his father has promised to attend the talent contest a week hence where Billy will perform yoyo tricks, a talent that was an unexpected outcome of his disappointing eleventh birthday. Billy had wanted rollerblades, a skateboard and a water gun as his presents, but he had instead received just a Typhoon yoyo and an accompanying book of instructions on how to perform 21 different yoyo tricks. Because Billy couldn't read the book's instructions, he taught himself the tricks by means of the diagrams alone. Since Billy also cannot read the posters about the talent contest, it is only by overhearing hearing two girls talking about the contest that he learns he must register at the park. When he presents himself there, he discovers he needs to find a sponsor as the event is really a charity fundraiser. It is during Natasha's attempts to assist Billy in getting her adoptive father's firm to be a sponsor that Natasha momentarily breaks her silence before again becoming mute. At the book's conclusion, Billy, with Natasha's permission, gets the Arnolds to read Natasha's diary, and, again, with Natasha's permission, Billy shares the missing piece behind her silence, a secret which she had "told" him - Natasha is not an orphan. Because of poverty, Natasha's mother had left her daughter at a church which then transferred Natasha to an orphanage; however, Natasha's mother, also named Natasha, had come to visit her at the orphanage every full moon, and so Natasha's Canadian contact with her mother in Rumania was via her observation of the moon's phases.
At the book's end, Billy does participate in the talent show and wins before being disqualified because he lacks the requisite sponsor. Though Billy's original purpose in entering the competition had been the prize money and pleasing his dad, Billy found something more satisfying.
He expected to feel badly. He waited for the rush of disappointment he was sure would come. But it didn't. Instead he felt lighter than air. They thought he had been good enough to win. Even though he didn't have a sponsor, even though his dad hadn't been there, he had done all 21 tricks, and he'd won. It wasn't the money that was important. The important thing was this feeling, this feeling that for once he was good enough.
The Moon Children is very much a book of character rather than action. Chris, Billy's mother, realizing that she is responsible for Billy's FASD, is determined not to repeat her error. When Zak reappears on Monday in a drunken state and tries to entice Chris into joining him in a few beers, Chris, who has been attending AA, says that she's not drinking because "drinks would hurt the baby, and I'm trying to do the right thing." Zak's response, "Come on. lets have a little party!...This baby won't be like Billy, don't worry" leads to Chris's throwing him out while telling him that she's changing the lock.
The book is not without a villain. Eddie Mundy, a classmate of Billy's, is one of those individuals who will exploit the apparently vulnerable, and he makes fun of the way Billy looks and of Billy's inability to read and the fact that Billy sometimes puts his shoes on the wrong feet. In addition to verbally abusing Billy by calling him names, Eddie exploits Billy's illiteracy and tricks Billy into giving him money.
While The Moon Children has a happy ending, thinking child readers will realize that both Billy and Natasha still have many challenges ahead of them.
Dave Jenkinson, who lives in Winnipeg, MB, is CM's editor and a Senior Scholar at the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba, in Winnipeg, MB.
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