Finding a Voice: Friendship is a Two Way Street
Written by: Kim Hood
Publisher: O'Brien Press
Ages : 10+
Thirteen year old Jo is struggling to deal with school and the demands of a mentally unstable mother. As main carer for an adult who resists medication and outside help, Jo finds herself stretched thin, trying to ignore schoolyard gossip about her and keeping her mother calm. Fifteen year old Chris is a ward of the state, and severely disabled due to cerebral palsy. Confined to a wheelchair and prone to seizures, he attends the Special Education unit of Jo’s school. The two children meet when Jo volunteers to help out with him during school hours. What starts out for Jo as a means to avoid contact with her classmates and earn academic credits, soon blossoms into friendship, as she begins opening up to him about her life.
All his life, Chris has been treated as practically invisible- his carers assume he cannot communicate or comprehend things said to him, and carelessly talk about him in his presence. They feed, bathe and care for him automatically without ever stopping to consider his choices. A routine feeding becomes an eye opener for Jo when she realises Chris is deliberately kicking her and not having a seizure. She discovers he doesn’t like the food she is spooning into his mouth. Pretty soon, she is bringing him not just food from home but books to read as well – turns out Chris taught himself to read in all those hours in primary school. Jo then moves on to figure out a way for Chris to communicate with the world. But just when you think things are looking up, a series of misunderstandings leads to Jo smuggling Chris out of school, a move that seriously endangers his life.
I found this story moving, with well developed, believable characters. Surrounded by harsh , uncaring or just plain unreliable adults, Jo and Chris have only each other to depend on , and I found myself rooting for Jo, the narrator of this story, from the start. She is smart and perceptive, and the first person to treat Chris with dignity, and as an individual. Chris, in turn, reveals his strengths, surprising us in the end with his empathy for Jo. I liked the fact that the author steered clear of romance, keeping this a story about two friends trying to help each other. The book also draws attention to a little-mentioned topic - that of mental health, the stigma revolving around it and the need to seek help with its treatment.