The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee by Barry Jonsberg
This Australian award winner is the story of 12-year-old Candice who is completing a school project that is supposed to be a paragraph for each letter of the alphabet that reveals something about her. But Candice can’t keep it to one paragraph, so she begins to do chapters for each letter and the words she chooses for each letter are unexpected too. As she writes, Candice is telling the story of her family and her pet fish. She worries about her family falling apart, since her mother is still grieving the loss of Candice’s baby sister Sky to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Her father is working on software in his spare time to prove that he can be as successful as his brother, Rich Uncle Brian, or flying his toy plane. Either way, both parents are self-absorbed rather than paying attention to Candice. She also doesn’t have any friends, until an unusual boy comes to school, a boy who believes that he’s traveled to another dimension and spends his time trying to get back home by falling out of a tree. It seems to Candice that it’s up to her to fix a lot of what’s wrong, but how can she?
Jonsberg has crafted a unique character in Candice. She may or may not be on the autism spectrum, but it is clear that she is different from the others in her grade and that they know it. Yet Candice functions fully, just in her own way. She loves her family, makes connections with others, and cares deeply about what is happening around her. She just does it in her own way, one that makes sense and that shows just how smart she is.
The book is wonderfully funny, with situations that are almost slapstick at times and others that are cleverly worked. The scene where Candice forces herself to get on her uncle’s boat to talk about the problems between him and her father is classic nausea humor that is done to perfection. Yet the book has plenty of depth too, with the deep depression that her mother has fallen into and even a little romance.
Strong writing keeps this complex book from tangling into knots and a strong protagonist gives it a unique and smart voice. A great Australian import that is ideal for middle grade readers.
Reviewed from e-galley received from Chronicle Books and Edelweiss.