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Thursday, April 7, 2005

ON THE BOOK TRAIL

"Skinny B, Skaz and Me," "Ice Drift"


"Skinny B, Skaz and Me," John Singleton, Puffin Books; 2005; 274 pp.

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It's been decided: Children's fiction has been treading the safe territory of witches, wizards and magic for far too long. John Singleton's gritty novel, "Skinny B, Skaz and Me," has no time for fiction of that ilk. Not when life, real life, can be so much more visceral.

Twelve-year-old Lee's father works odd hours driving a taxi. His mother invests all her emotional energy in his younger sister, Skinny B, who has been sick, "all stick and no stuffing" for as far back as he can remember. He's got the hots for Alison Libidowicz, but so far it's "all drool and dreams." His best friend Jigger has been acting strange ever since he discovered his mother is on dope. And now, Skaz, the coolest boy in school, wants to be his mate, well, sort of.

The trouble with Lee, in his own words, is that he is "still a bozo." Anyone wiser would want nothing to do with Skaz Dutton -- or anyone on The Feck. The Feck is the worst part of town, where all the street scum live: petty criminals, drug pushers and Hoodz 5. Then Lee agrees to run an errand in The Feck so that he can make enough money to buy Alison a birthday present -- and runs slap-bang into Hoodz 5 and the laws of the jungle. Someone has tipped them off, so there they are waiting for him to turn up. They rough him up, make off with the all-terrain bike his father bought him and force him to become their delivery boy.

Meanwhile, Skinny B has been diagnosed with leukaemia and is fighting for her life in the hospital. Now Lee has got to get his bike back; break free of Hoodz 5; impress Alison on her birthday; and all the while, be the concerned brother at his sister's bedside. You'd think that his sister would be top priority, but author Singleton thinks not. He knows the mind of a boy like Lee only too well, and Lee has got other things to think of: like convincing his classmates that he's cooler than Skaz, getting Alison to notice him and keeping Hoodz 5 from killing him.

Singleton's language is colloquial and rough around the edges -- his view of growing up in the 'hood hardnosed and unforgiving. There is no space for teary-eyed sentimentality. This is a coming-of-age tale made tougher by the realization that there are no role models to emulate. As Lee finally puts it: "Time for real life." The only enlightenment is: There is no enlightenment.

Note: For children 12 to 15 years.

"Ice Drift," Theodore Taylor, Harcourt; 2005; 224 pp.

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If realism seems to be in vogue where children's books go, survival is even more so. John Singleton's hero fights street gangs and drug pushers to survive the mean streets of a modern city. And Theodore Taylor's 14-year-old Alika battles polar bears and Arctic temperatures to keep his younger brother, Sulu, and himself alive.

The year is 1868, and the two brothers are hunting for seals on an ice floe attached to their island in the Arctic. Suddenly the floe breaks free from land, taking the boys with it. For six long months, the boys and their husky, Jamka, drift south on their "ice ship," away from their homes, their families and everything that is familiar to them.

Their fight is a more primeval one than Lee's: against starvation; against the elements; and against the wild. Three long months of cold and Arctic darkness lie ahead of them. Alika, trained to be a hunter like his father, builds an igloo; harpoons seals for food; and fells a nanuk (polar bear) with a single bullet from his father's Maynard rifle. On the floe, it is as though everything conspires against the brothers' survival: A polar bear makes off with the seal they have hunted; a blizzard hits the floe; and food supplies run out.

The warm months spell new trouble for the boys. As the temperatures climb, the ice floe begins to fragment, until all they are left with is a single ice-raft upon a glassy sea covered with floating shards of ice. Through this entire test of endurance, the brothers manage to keep their hopes of being rescued up.

Taylor bases his adventure on a true account of the most amazing "voyage" in international maritime history: a trip of 1,800 miles (2,900 km) on an ice floe in the Greenland Strait (now known as the Davis Strait). On that historic "voyage," U.S. Captain George Tyson and a party of 18 others were marooned on a floe and separated from their polar exploration ship. Taylor's story is of two young boys forced to go on a similar journey -- but what is significant here is that the boys are Inuit.

The Inuit -- traditional inhabitants of this polar region -- have often been treated shamefully by the white man. But Taylor's version gives the author an excuse to set the record straight. He betrays an intense admiration for Inuit culture and the Inuit's profound respect for life in all its myriad forms. (When a bear is killed, its skull is decorated with beads to please its spirit.) While we live in a consumption driven world, the Inuit waste nothing. They are masters of resourcefulness: Seal skin is used to make ropes; caribou antlers are used to make braces for their sledges; and walrus intestines are used as a insulated container -- to store oil.

This is action-packed adventure fiction at its finest, but it is also a fabulous lesson in geography. Taylor fascinates his readers with details of this remote Arctic world -- the northern lights sweeping the winter sky; the sun rising and setting only once a year; and the people who have made the harshest region on Earth their home. With insight and sensitivity, Taylor shows his readers how human beings adapt to survive, no matter where they live. The boys are eventually rescued and reunited with their parents -- there's no surprise there. What never ceases to surprise, though, is their remarkable ability to defy the odds. And it is this that makes for such stirring storytelling.

Note: For children 8 to 12 years.



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