Review by Jennifer Irvine
Puffin Canada, Penguin Random House, April 2019
208 pages, hardcover, $18.99 CAD, 978-0-73526-525-7
Ages 9-12, Grades 4-7
Middle Grade, Contemporary Realism
Sometimes, as a United Nations employee, you have to know when to take a break. For example, the UN negotiator left the peace talks in Syria when he didn’t feel the two sides were trying hard enough.
I needed a serious mental break after KSJ on Monday. We were supposed to write letters to a journalist who was imprisoned in Egypt and sentenced to seven years, but then released at the last minute to return to Canada and teach university students about freedom of the press.
That’s what we were SUPPOSED to do.
What we did do? Talk about costumes.
Social activist and seventh grader Mya Parsons is well on her way to building her resume as a future employee of the United Nations. She’s the head of the Kids for Social Justice Club (KSJ) at her school and wants to change the world filled with poverty and persecution. However, there is something that Mya desperately wants even more: a cell phone. While her mother is in Myanmar to take care of Mya’s ailing grandmother, Mya continues to work on her father to get her one. She could take care of her eight-year-old sister Nanda much better. Mya’s best friend Cleo has one and now Cleo is texting with other friends, including cell-phone pro Jojo. This, coupled with Cleo maturing faster—growing breasts, getting her period, and having a major crush on classmate Drew—makes Mya feels alienated and excluded.
I felt immediately comfortable in this middle-class family, perhaps because they live in Vancouver, have common sense, display open-mindedness, and have familiar North American family squabbles. Dad struggles to cook for his family as his wife is away, while maintaining his environmental law practice. He gets loads of grief over his “burnt broccoli” even though he insists “it’s caramelized,” the perceived inequity of distributing household chores, and Mya’s migraine-producing pleas for a cell phone. It’s all wrapped up in a multi-race, multi-cultured family that feels both realistic and inclusive.
What makes Mya not just another precocious kid is her 12-year-old (and three months) innocence about boys, her vulnerability around her friendship with Cleo, and the love she has for her family even when she tries to hide it with relentless commentary on their annoying habits.
There are several strong female role models in this story, including Mya’s mother who is a freelance editor, Cleo’s police officer mother, and Mya’s Aunt Winnie, who doesn’t seem to take no for an answer. Winnie is relentless in her quest for her niece to learn how to cook some of the traditional recipes of Myanmar.
The storyline of Mya’s mother, who is away in a country filled with political unrest, gives the reader a glimpse into global issues such as how Myanmar was ruled by the military for years, that U Win Tin—who believed “everyone should be allowed to vote in elections”—was jailed for 19 years, and Malala Yousafzai, the young woman from Pakistan who was shot in the face because she believe that women deserved to go to school. Mya also learns the negative world impact of producing cell phones—something that she has to make peace with if she is ever going to own one.
Humour is everywhere and usually stems from pithy quips based on Mya’s musings. She’s thrilled when Cleo is finally exasperated with her boyfriend Drew and starts to “snort like a baby dragon.” The scene where Nanda can’t find her knee pads for soccer and uses her mother’s menstrual pads instead is unforgettable. One of my favourite lines is that bad news is considered, “doom with extra pepperoni.”
Eventually, the reader witnesses Mya morphing into a responsible, almost-teenager who helps her father navigate home life without her mother and learns about her Myanmar heritage. This was an effortless and entertaining read, filled with humour, spot-on middle-grade characters, and relevant international affairs.
In 2016, JENNIFER IRVINE is working on her BFA in Creative Writing at UBC where she writes fiction, YA and is even dabbling in graphic novel writing. She has been published in York University’s Existere Magazine and UBC’s online Garden Statuary Magazine.