CM . . . . Volume XX Number 28 . . . . March 21, 2014
Shannon, 12, had always wanted a baby brother or sister. When, after many attempts, Shannon's mother is finally pregnant, Shannon is over the moon. But her world falls apart when Gabriel, her baby brother, is born with Down syndrome. Unable to share her feelings with friends and with her parents' attention focused on the health of the baby, Shannon mourns for her brother and yet longs for her family to be just "normal". Rebellious and angry, she questions all her previous beliefs, especially in God. Her parents, struggling themselves, accept an offer from Mandy, their daughter's best friend, and Mandy's mother to take Shannon to summer camp, "Camp Outlook". Angry at this apparent dismissal, Shannon is determined not to enjoy herself, but, despite a series of strange almost mystical occurrences that perplex her, she fits in well. Her camp experience introduces her to several charismatic camp leaders, and she enjoys the company of fellow campers, some of whom have their own developmental challenges. This combination of circumstances enables Shannon to contend with her emotions surrounding Gabriel and her own spiritual awareness.
Brenda Baker, writing her first children's book, has tackled a complex topic in a compassionate and sensitive manner. Shannon tells her story from an appropriate first person perspective. While some of her explanations and insights seem a little too precocious for a 12-year-old, for the most part Shannon's dialogue is authentic and typical of her age group. The story is told in a fast-paced, no-nonsense and up-front style as Shannon bravely faces her own emotions and behaviours head-on and does not shy away from acknowledging her weaknesses and foibles. Nor does Shannon evade the series of "bizarre events" that happen to her that make her question her sanity but which aid her in rationalizing her life as well as serve as an added suspenseful feature in the plot line.
Readers will see Shannon's character deepen incrementally as new experiences and people converge to widen her horizons. Shannon is quick to apply these insights to her own life, and, as her perceptions deepen, she recognizes friendships and ambitions that now seem shallow. Her closeness with her parents and her immediate love for her little brother are constants even while she fears for their future as a family and is concerned about society's strictures. Supportive characters are appropriately drawn as per their role in reflecting Shannon's deepening awareness of life. The character of Ella, a girl at the camp who has a small but crucial role in the story and who also has Down syndrome, is particularly well-drawn, right down to the perfect inflections of her voice.
With its authentic camp setting, page-turning plot, readable dialogue and satisfying ending in which Shannon has re-worked the definition of 'normal' in her own small family, Camp Outlook will surely appeal to children in the recommended age group and would provide a topic of substance for discussion.
Aileen Wortley is a retired librarian living in Toronto, ON.
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