Canadian, middle grade, Poignant Coming-of-Age Story

A Recipe for Success: One Year in Coal Harbor Review

I did a happy dance when I first heard that Polly Horvath‘s latest novel was a companion to Everything on a Waffle, one of my favourite middle grade reads. I discovered it while completing my masters in children’s literature and it was a favourite hand-selling pick of mine at the late, beloved Flying Dragon Bookshop.

Primrose is in need of a friend, or at least a friend her own age. Most of the people she prefers to hang around with are adults, including local waffle expert and restaurateur Miss Bowzer, her once foster parents Bert and Evie, and her lovable Uncle Jack. So when Bert and Evie welcome Ked, a foster kid, into their care, Primrose thinks she’s hit the jackpot. Ked is friendly enough, but Primrose gets the sense he’s hiding something.

The book takes place, as suggested by the title, over one eventful year in a small town in British Columbia. Horvath nails the moody but awe-inspiring landscape and a good deal of the plot revolves around the potential logging of the area. As in Everything on a Waffle, each chapter is followed by a recipe in Primrose’s own words. I very much enjoyed this aspect of the first novel and was glad to see that Horvath carried it over to the sequel.

Primrose is a bit of an odd duck, which I love. She prefers the company of adults, is extremely practical, and has a dry sense of humour. Primrose’s attempts at matchmaking her uncle and Miss Bowzer are as endearing as they are hilarious. There is nothing remotely cloying or earnest about her, in fact her honesty and scheming may turn some adult readers off, but I think children will relate to her upfront character.

There is no one like Polly Horvath. Her range as a writer is impressive and she is very difficult to categorize. For a children’s author, this is something of a rarity. Often authors find a key formula, genre, or style and stick with it. After all, if kids like something, they demand more. You know what you are getting when you pick up a novel by Gordon Korman, Judy Blume, or Lesley Livingston, for example.

With Horvath, it’s always a surprise. Her novels are always well-written and lean to the literary side of things. She plays with absurdity, dark humour, and hope. Even when Horvath’s endings are happy they feel tinged with melancholy. One Year in Coal Harbor opens with the death of a beloved dog, which is an unusual and risky way to open a middle grade novel, but does wonders to set the tone and introduce readers to Primrose’s empathy and provides an honest, sensitive look at some of the grimmer truths of life. It isn’t necessary to read Everything on a Waffle to appreciate One Year in Coal Harbor, but for a full picture of the world and Primrose’s development as a character, I highly recommend it.

One Year in Coal Harbor is available now in trade paperback from Groundwood Books.

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