By Barry JonsbergYoung adult Allen & Unwin
My Life as an Alphabet
Twelve-year-old Candice Phee is hilariously honest and a little odd – but she has a big heart and the best intentions.
Her life is complicated: her father and her uncle don’t talk, her mother has shut herself away since her baby sister died of cot death years ago, her American penpal Denille doesn’t write back, and her best friend, Douglas Benson From Another Dimension, is, well … afraid he’s fallen into another dimension. Candice is determined to fix the problems of everyone she cares about.
Given an English assignment to write a paragraph about her life that corresponds to each letter of the alphabet, Candice decides to enlarge it to a chapter about each letter – and along the way, she tells not just her story, but the story of her loved ones.
Barry Jonsberg says the book was inspired by an English assignment he gave his own students, who enthusiastically responded. Out of that, the voice of Candice came to him.
Laugh-out-loud funny and wonderfully touching, My Life as an Alphabet is a delightful novel about an unusual girl who goes to great lengths to bring love and laughter into the lives of everyone she cares about.
My Life as an Alphabet is executed with both humour and heart, despite its deceptive simplicity. Candice Phee is pitch-perfect as an unusual mind experiencing the trials of adolescence, with the added difficulties of family conflict. Barry Jonsberg refuses to diagnose her, so we meet her as a person, not a condition, and her literal approach to human complexity makes for hilarious reading.
Jonsberg’s touch is light, his approach intelligent, and his themes of love, grief and loyalty are universal.
As part of her school assignment, 12-year-old Candice Phee is requested to write a paragraph about herself using each letter of the alphabet, only she’s decided to write several paragraphs – well – entire chapters really, on her life, which together form the structure of this charming YA book. Candice, is by her own admission, unlike other teenagers. She’s not interested in computers, mobile phones and music. Instead, her pastime pursuits involve reading the dictionary and the collected works of Dickens. She has a ‘pernickety pencil case’ with a divider so her pencils don’t get mixed up and continues to write letters to an American penpal, without ever receiving a response in return. Candice’s social ineptness and lack of friends may have something to do with her tendency to speak the truth, a characteristic not considered disarming but unsettling by her peers and the adults that orbit her world. Her inability to talk and interact in ways deemed normal for her age coupled with her direct, literal form of communication earns Candice the nickname of ‘Essen’ – a phonetic presentation of S.N, which stands for Special Needs. Whether or not she’s on the (autistic) spectrum is a moot point. What’s more important and interesting, is that, as her uncle points out, Candice sings her own song and dances her own dance. For this reason alone, it’s a great book for young adults, and for anyone really, who ever felt that their tunes are woefully out of step with the rest of surefooted, harmonious society.
My Life as an Alphabet not only explores the people that make up Candice’s life in the small Queensland town of Albright, but also tracks her attempts to try and glue together their broken spirits. There’s her mother who spends days in a darkened room, unable to face a world that brought her breast cancer as well as the SIDS death of Candice’s baby sister years earlier. Candice’s father too, is given to muttering under his breath and retreating to his computer shed, equally unable to recover any bonhomie after a spectacular fall-out with Candice’s uncle. Trying to spread some sunshine to her moribund family is no easy task. Furthermore, her beloved teacher has a lazy eye, which causes untoward ridicule, so how to cure her of that affliction? Fortunately Candice has some moral support in her tireless fix-it quests to improve the lives of her dearest. The new kid-in-town has become her close friend, ‘Douglas Benson-From Another Dimension’. (His hyphenated name will duly be explained). Failing his presence, she can always talk things over with her goldfish, whose odd moniker of ‘Earth-Pig Fish’ will also be explained in due course.
As a narrator, Candice is matter-of-fact, engaging and funny – even when she doesn’t mean to be. She is in some ways an earnest, precocious child and yet still naive when it comes to understanding the strange ways of adults, given to talking indirectly in metaphors and allusions instead of the simple truth. Her unpitying, selfless regard and helpful generosity towards others is refreshing as well. Unlike a lot of neurotic characters in YA books who are obsessed with gazing at their own navels, Candice does not wallow in angsty, melodramatic dramas. Her imagination and her quirky lines of thought are endearing; her consideration for others admirable.
Thuy On is a Melbourne-based freelance reviewer and the books editor of the Big Issue.
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