Tag Archives: bullying

The Improbable Rise of Paco Jones

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Paco Jones is a bi-racial 13-year-old, half Mexican and half white, and the new kid at his fancy private school. Nicknamed ‘Taco’ by his less-then-friendly wealthy white classmates, Paco is looking at a few years of isolation and ridicule. It might be different if he stood out for something other than his name and skin colour, like talent on the basketball court, or brilliance in the classroom. But no, he’s just a regular student and benchwarmer on the team. And he gets pooped on by a bird his first week. Great.

But the poop leads him to meet Naomi Fox, an African-American girl in his grade, beautiful, popular, and his soulmate. Of course, he can’t tell her he’s in love, as she is dating Trent, the most popular boy in the school. But at least he finds a friend. And then he spikes the punch at a dance on a dare, kids get drunk, and suddenly he has a newfound popularity.

This book is written as a flashback from Paco’s perspective as he himself is a middle-grade teacher, years later. Because of that, I think the characters and behaviours are a bit more mature than I would have expected from a group of 13 and 14-year-olds. Naomi and Paco were wonderful characters, but they aren’t written as young teens.

Paco is very relatable for anyone who didn’t quite fit in during those middle school years. Which I think was more of us than not. He is trying to figure out who he is and how he fits in, both at school and in life. He is aware of his parents’ expectations for him and follows in the footsteps of an older brother who didn’t want to follow that route. He gives in a little more easily to peer pressure than I would have liked, but in his circumstances, probably most would.

Naomi is a lovely, self-assured girl who also deals with racism and peer pressure. Trent is pushing for sex and she wants to wait, but she lets people think they are, to boost his reputation. She finds an understanding friend in Paco and the two form a bond that goes beyond shared bullying and pressures at school.

Paco’s parents are a present and strong force in the book and in the boy’s life. They are aware of the pressures they place on him and the abuse he takes at school, but also believe that he can live up to their expectations, and rise above the other petty behaviour. They do not dismiss the bullying and racism, but realize, sadly, that it isn’t going to end anytime soon, and Paco must figure out a way to deal with it. They see his schooling as a great opportunity and want him to realize it as well.

The cast of secondary adult characters really contributes to the novel. The teachers and coaches and principal of the school all bring their own baggage and ideas to the story, and Paco takes away lessons from each encounter with them.

This is an uplifting story about a young boy who is learning about himself and his place in the world. (And the cover is GORGEOUS). Author Dominic Carrillo talks about peer pressure and the fleetingness of fame and popularity, and how in the end, you must be yourself. It is a nice, fast read for anyone, and a great story for kids trying to find out where they fit in.

The Improbable Rise of Paco Jones was published March 27th, 2016 by CSP-Createspace.

Jerkbait

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Back to my LGBT reading list for this one.

Tristan and Robbie are 18-year-old identical twins. Physically, it is impossible to tell them apart. But the resemblance stops there. They are not close, they have never gotten along. Tristan loves the theatre, has a natural talent for dance and singing, and dreams of performing on Broadway.  Robbie is slated to go in a top round for the NHL draft this year. A gifted centre, he dreams of nothing but the playing for New Jersey Devils. He is their parents’ hope for the future. Oh. Another difference? One twin is gay, one straight.

One night, Robbie tries to kill himself. The pressure of his draft year, along with the secrets he keeps are too much for him to handle. Instead of getting him help, the twins’ parents decide to hide the truth.  They don’t want his draft value dropping.  So Tristan becomes his brother’s keeper, and the two boys get to know each other for the first time in their lives.

Tristan has lived his life in Robbie’s shadow. Although a good hockey player himself, he is not a star and has never dreamed of being one. But as he gets to finally know Robbie, he sees beneath the cocky exterior to the terrified boy who knows that if his secret gets out, his dream could be over. At the same time, Robbie discovers that his love for Tristan is more powerful than his fear.

This book tackles a topic that is so relevant and important today, and I was excited to read it, hoping to yell from the rooftops “READ THIS!” after. I hate to be negative when such a story is so needed. And I still think it should be read. But to be honest, while the idea is fantastic, it falls somewhat short in the execution.

The good:

The idea, the story, the support for gay athletes. So needed.

I really love that the book is written from Tristan’s perspective.  He is the straight twin, living in his brother’s shadow, raised in a hockey family to believe that homosexuality has no place in sport.  You can’t be gay and play hockey. He has no idea his brother is gay, mainly because he doesn’t pay attention. Robbie tries to tell him, several times, but Tristan doesn’t want to see. He is too comfortable in his envy and self-pity. But when he finally does see it, he starts to understand not only Robbie’s pain and but also his bravery.

Author Mia Siegert illustrates clearly the psychological trauma that a young gay athlete can go through. Actually, that any gay teen can face, athlete or not. She portrays the bullying at the hands of friends and teammates incredibly well, and the varied behaviours – everything from religious conservatism to harassment to physical brutality to love and support – ring authentic and true.

All the teens are complex, relatable, and fantastically developed characters. The friendships and rivalries and likes and dislikes and bitchy behavior and unquestioning affection brought me straight back to the halls of my high school. It seems that not much changes. Tristan’s speech to the hockey team was completely believable and showed so much pride and support for his brother.

The bad:

The execution. The story seems forced in places, as if trying too hard to make a point.

The parents. And I don’t mean they’re bad because they are homophobic and racist (that’s just obvious). They are flat, one-dimensional, overly-exaggerated characters of hockey parents, controlling everything the boys did, not wanting anyone to know about the suicide attempts, thinking only of how such attempts could affect Robbie’s future, never that he might not have one if he succeeded.

It’s 2016, and these boys are 18 years old.  The computer stuff made no sense at all. The chat rooms and messaging seemed out of date. My kids are way younger, and know all about internet safety and not chatting with strangers and DEFINITELY not meeting anyone in person that you have met online. This is not new information. Also, for parents who control EVERYTHING, this is where they decide to respect privacy and not interfere?

I don’t want to spoil it, so will just say that I know Robbie is lonely, and I know we all do stupid things when we are in pain, but the big scene near the end of the story just does not make sense. His behaviour, given his lifelong dream, is not in character at all.

Add the twin telepathy to that. We’ve all heard the stories how twins miles apart can feel when something is wrong with the other, and I have no trouble believing that. But I don’t think that after 18 years of ignoring each other, two people who have never shared so much as a twinge of recognition all of a sudden start having conversations with each other in their heads. I assume Siegert is trying to show how close they became once they started to really know each other, but to me it made believable characters less so.

I think Siegert has an incredible idea in this story. So with all the negative, I still say “READ THIS.”  The good messages in it outweigh the bad aspects, and they are important and timely and can start a much needed conversation.

The organization You Can Play, support for gay athletes, is referenced and promoted at the end.

Jerkbait was published May 10th, 2016 by Jolly Fish Press.

Dead Jed: Adventures of a Middle School Zombie

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I obviously have the sense of humour of a 12 year old boy, because I laughed my ass off reading this book. SO FUNNY. Like snort your tea out your nose funny. I’m still giggling. But it’s more than hilarious. It’s also clever and charming and even a little bit romantic. You know, in the goth/zombie sense.

Jed is 12 years old, starting grade 7 at Pine Hollow Middle School.  And he’s dead.  Or undead. Cardiovascularly challenged. Flatline enhanced. A zombie. While most kids just have to worry about navigating classes and a new social structure in middle school, Jed worries about losing body parts. An unexpected sneeze can land his nose across the room (his record is 11 feet, 3 inches. Epic.) A particularly hard punt from the kicker while he holds the ball in position during a football game can send his hand through the uprights along with the ball. Wrong angle going into a trash can, and he can lose an arm. But lucky for him, all he needs is the heavy duty stapler and the duct tape that he always carries in his backpack, and he’s back in the action.

Robbie is in his 4th year of middle school, and makes it his mission to torture Jed as much as possible – shoving him in the trash can, locking him in the trophy case, removing his limbs and tossing them as far away as possible. The principal doesn’t think a kid with Jed’s challenges should be at his school, and looks the other way.

But Jed has his best friend Luke, and new friends Anna and Javon and Ray and Chris, and countless other students and teachers who look past his grey skin and “ooze” and see the boy.

Jed is a typical boy (minus the zombie thing). He doesn’t really like school, wonders what he will be when he grows up, gets pissed at his parents for being, well, parents, and is tongue-tied around girls. He wants to be like everyone else, wonders what it would be like, but can see the benefits of standing out in the crowd. Sometimes.

Author Scott Craven addresses good mid-grade themes – bullying, friendship, family dynamics, sexuality and self-esteem. He deals with each topic with dry humour and frankness, and (again, minus the zombie thing, unless you went to a very different school than I did) the scenes are all familiar and relevant.

This is a great middle school read, but ANYONE who loves a good laugh will have fun with it (as long as you don’t mind a good description of squelching an arm back in place…) Don’t miss the second and third books in the series, Dawn of the Jed and Return of the Jed.

Dead Jed is published by Month9Books, LLC.

Striker

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The Pan Am-Para Pan Am Games are going in Toronto, and Canada is totally kicking ass. What better time to review a sports book?  (That, and Striker is apparently my 9 year old’s “most favourite book ever,” so she cornered me…)  And it is a fun, fast read for anyone who enjoys a feel good story.

Cody is 13, and recovering from cancer surgery on his leg.  His passion is soccer, and sitting out a season while he dealt with chemo and surgery were probably harder for him than the actual illness.  But now he is on the road to recovery, and he badly wants to try out for a local rep team. His over-protective mother might be harder to convince than the cancer was to beat!

He makes the Lions as a “Super Sub,” the nickname the eleven substitute players give themselves after they realize that they will be watching the season, and not playing at all. Cody does not want to tell anyone about his cancer, and is self-conscious about his weakened leg and lack of hair, all made worse by the bullying from a few teammates.

After a mid-season shake-up, the Super Subs find themselves the only players on the team, and their good humour and willingness to play helps form them into a great team. Cody learns to trust his new friends, and his leg.

Striker is a good middle-grade novel about bullying, life after illness, friendship, and soccer. The story looks at bullying between kids AND between adults, as well as the effects of childhood cancer on a whole family.  It is a fun read for anyone who likes the sport.

Striker is published by James Lorimer & Company.