It often takes a while to figure out when you’re falling in love with a book. A book is a risk. You’re judging it from page one onward, informed by your own personal prejudices and reading history. Then there’s this moment when a shift takes place. It might be a subtle shift or it might be sudden and violent but all of a sudden it’s there. One minute you’re just reading for the heck of it, and the next you are LOVING what you’re reading, hoping it never has to end. Happily, that was my experience with Barry Jonsberg’s The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee. Lots of books promise you that you’ll fall in love with their odd characters. They’ll say something along the lines of “You won’t like her – you’ll love her.” And usually that’s untrue. But in this case, I really do love Candice. How can you not? She wants to turn her fish atheist, for crying out loud. And on that note . . .
In Candice’s own words, her family could not be considered, “front-runners for Australian Happy Family of the Year.” Her baby sister died years ago, her mother is depressed, her father is angry with his brother (sure that the man got rich on one of his ideas), and her Rich Uncle Brian is a lonely cuss. She’s kind of an odd kid in and of herself. The kind that doesn’t have a lot of friends but doesn’t mind the fact. There are other problems, of course. She worries that her fish has set her up as a false god. She worries that her friend Douglas, who seriously believes he’s from another dimension, intends to throw himself into a gorge. But at least she has her pen pal (who has never written back, but that’s no problem) to write to. And as Candice says, “I want to pursue happiness. I want to catch it, grab it by the scruff of the neck, drag it home, and force it to embrace all the people I mentioned above. I’m just not sure how to accomplish this. But I am determined to try.”
The thing you have to admire about Candice is that she’s a remarkably proactive protagonist. When she’s sick and tired of the broken state of her family she sets out to correct their problems (sometimes with odd results). When she thinks there’s a possibility of a friend doing something stupid she will put herself in harm’s way (or at least, annoyance’s way) to help him out. She’s smart as a whip, a fact that no one around her notices. And Candice is also a relentless optimist, but not in an annoying way. She has no interest at all in what you think of her. Early in the book she mentions that she has lots of friends as far as she’s concerned but that, “As far as everyone else was concerned, I didn’t have a friend in the world. Does that make a difference? I’m not sure.” Kids have so many bully books these days that it’s a huge relief to read one where the mean girl teases Candice and the words have absolutely zippo effect on her whatsoever. Like Teflon in a way, is this kid. Bullied kids make for dull reading. Candice is never dull.
She’s also not autistic. I feel like that kind of statement shouldn’t be as revolutionary as it is. Heck, it’s practically self-explanatory. We’re so used to kids on the autism spectrum in our children’s literature these days that we have a hard time remembering the ones that are just plain old weird. But they exist. In fact, Candice self-diagnoses as weird. When she was young she witnessed her beloved baby sister’s death from SIDS and it mucked her up in a couple ways. Not as many ways as her mother and father, but a lot of ways just the same. So there’s a wonderful scene where a friend’s mother makes the assumption that Candice is autistic. When she says that she is not the friend’s mom asks, “Then what are you?” “I’m me.” That could come off as cute. Here, for whatever reason, it does not.
I’ve already heard a couple people compare this book to Holly Goldberg Sloan’s book Counting By 7s which is understandable, if somewhat misleading. There are some major differences at work. First off, there’s the language. There’s a distinct deliciousness to Candice’s speech patterns. When her uncle wins her a stuffed toy at a fair that “might have been a gnu or a camel with severe disabilities” she tells him in no uncertain terms that it is “vile”. And then the descriptions in the book are also out of his world. A forced smile is described as “one of those smiles when someone has pointed a camera at you for half an hour and neglected to press the shutter.” Her friend Douglas is described as, “His eyes crowd toward the middle, as if they are trying to merge together but are prevented from doing so by the barrier of his nose, which is larger than you’d wish if you were designing it from scratch.” Her mother’s bedroom where she spends much of her time when depressed “smelled of something that had spent a long time out of the sunshine.”
Candice’s problems don’t just disappear miraculously in a puff of smoke either. By the end of the book she’s figured out how to mend some of the bigger problems that have been undermining her family’s happiness, but her sister is still dead, her mother still has depression, and her father still resents his brother. Things are significantly better, but there’s a long road to hoe. It is amazing that a book with this many potentially depressing subplots should be as upbeat, cheery, and downright hilarious as this. Jonsberg’s writing gives the book a skewed one-of-a-kind view of the world that is unlike any other you might encounter. You’ll like this book AND love it. And for what it’s worth, kid readers will too.
On shelves September 9th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Counting By 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
- The Very Ordered Existence of Merilee Marvelous by Suzanne Crowley
- Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
Other Blog Reviews: My Full Bookshelf
- Discussion questions for teachers can be found here.
- Not a fan of the title? Perhaps you’d prefer an alternate. After all, when it was published in Australia it was known as My Life as an Alphabet. Here’s the cover:
- Look inside the book here: