Word Nerd is out in paperback this week, which is cause for celebration! If you missed out on this when it was in hard cover, now is you chance to see what all the hype is about. This book has been much lauded, and rightfully so; it’s tightly written, funny, poignant (but not in a way that will make boys cringe), and compelling.
Ambrose thinks things are looking up when he and his mother, an English professor in search of tenure, arrive in Vancouver. But then Ambrose is almost killed in a not-so-innocent prank and his too good to be true upstairs neighbours (and landlords) turn out to be the parents of an ex-convict named Cosmo who is moving back home. But can someone who gets caught playing online scrabble really be all that bad? Ambrose doesn’t think so, and so begins an honest, funny, and unlikely friendship between Cosmo and Ambrose that leads to love, betrayal, danger, and of course, scrabble.
Ambrose spends most of the novel in a pair of hideous purple cords and a lumpy knit hat, which makes me think of the kid in About a Boy who manages to charm Hugh Grant with his Yeti sweaters and off-key singing. Except in this case the Hugh Grant/ big brother/father figure is a muscly Greek ex-con with a tattoo and a scrabble habit. Susin Nielsen’s extensive background in television writing is evident in her talent for voice and dialogue. I felt like I knew the characters in this book; having lived in Vancouver for a few years, I probably did. The dialogue is both authentic and punchy, which is no small feat.
What is most impressive about this outstanding novel is that at the heart of all the hijinks and snappy dialogue is a tender story about a woman who is still, after thirteen years, missing her husband, and her son who is not only dealing with his own loneliness, but his mother’s, as well. There is some captial B Bullying in here, as well as a potentially fatal prank and thuggish violence, and yet I never once felt like the book was depressing, heavy, or hard to deal with. Nielsen’s combination of a light comedic touch and serious emotional (and situational) drama is rare and worthy of praise.
Last winter there was a bit of drama when this article came out in the Hamilton Spectator, about a parent who was shocked at the language used in the book and wanted it removed from the school library. She couldn’t understand why the library would contain a book with the very same language that her son was being reprimanded for using**. I’m assuming the contentious words were boner, boobs, and f-ing (note: at no time in the novel is the f bomb ever spelled out). The mother then goes on to say that she would not consider Word Nerd “a children’s book.”
Sigh. So what IS a children’s book? This is a question that can never be answered. It’s like the quest in Natalie Babbitt’s The Search for Delicious , in which an entire kingdom is polled in an attempt to secure a definitive description for the word delicious: completely subjective and totally impossible. Most artistic forms embrace breaking the rules, trying new things, and pushing the envelope. But in children’s literature you walk a very fine line. How do you present a harsh reality without traumatizing children and offending their parents? If violence or death or some other taboo is presented in an alternate reality, does that make it more acceptable? What’s more damaging, explicit violent or sexual content or bad language? Who is responsible for what children read- the author, teachers, librarians, or parents? It’s a chicken and egg situation I try to avoid in order to maintain my own artistic integrity and sanity.
But I digress. Read Word Nerd and try not to fall in love with Ambrose, feisty Amanda who hosts her own stitch n’ bitch sessions, cheek-pinching Mrs. E, and poor hapless Principal Bob with his Simpsons ties. I think you’ll find there’s a lot to love here. Needless to say, I am very much looking forward to Susin’s next novel, the fantastically titled Dear George Clooney: Please Marry My Mom.
Word Nerd is available now from Tundra Books.
**It makes me wonder if she screens all of the television shows, movies, and videogames her child has access to with as much diligence. Kids are picking up that language somewhere… In any case, you can read Susin’s thoughtful response here.