Sunday, September 4, 2016

Downside Up

Downside Up
by Richard Scrimger
Recommended Ages: 11+

When we first meet Toronto sixth-grader Fred, he seems to be having trouble getting over the sadness of losing his beloved dog Casey. But then a chance bounce of Casey's favorite tennis ball leads Fred down a storm sewer and into an upside-down, parallel world where Casey still lives - and there are other differences, big and small. For example, his other self - known as Freddie - seems happier and more talkative, as does the upside-down version of Fred's mother. Fred keeps going back to visit, to spend time with Casey, and to have fun with Freddie, but gradually he begins to feel something is not right - something inside himself.

In the pivotal scene of this book, a local author comes to Fred's school to give a talk about how to write stories. When he uses Fred's dog as an example of how to plan a sad story - like about a beloved dog being hit by a car - Fred gut-punches him and gets suspended from school. I'm not sure about the significance of the point the author-within-the-book was trying to make; there may be some irony involved, as in his claim that the story should begin while the dog is still alive (whereas Casey's death is already a fact in Fred's life when this book opens). But Fred definitely misses the point of why he punched the writer, as we learn later on.

This is a very unusual but effective story. On one layer, it is about one boy (and later, we learn, others) exploring a weird, slightly magical world that apparently exists to give grieving people one more chance to see the loved one they have lost. On another level, it plays as an allegory about the nature of grieving itself. It literally features a psychotherapist trying to help a kid face the problems that triggered his depression. But it also visits a place that poses a different way of looking at loss, one that eventually proves therapeutic for Fred and his sister Izzy, if not for some readers who share their journey.

The Downside Up world may not be the only approach, or even necessarily the best, to opening up a heart blocked by sorrow. But I can imagine some counselors sharing this book with their clients, perhaps with therapeutic results. Beside that intriguing thought, I noticed a beautiful and distinctive writing style, full of unique expressive touches and yet direct enough to connect with young readers. The book is cleverly structured to begin in the midst of things, relaying information to the reader just when it is needed, but with each surprise designed to remind you of a detail you may have missed earlier. The expected never happens. All the characters are believably imperfect, yet one's heart goes out to them. Overall, it is an emotionally gripping, sweetly hurting story that guides Fred to the turning point of his grieving process and leaves him there, right where he needs to be. The pacing, plotting, and diction are all good. But what it has above all is heart.

Canadian author Richard Scrimger has published several other novels for boys, including the "Nose" trilogy (starting with The Nose from Jupiter), its companion book The Boy from Earth, Of Mice and Nutcrackers, Me & Death, Zomboy and Lucky Jonah. Their subjects include body-swapping, accepting undead classmates, exploring the afterlife, surviving family dramas, and navigating strange urban landscapes. Their online description gives an impression of a solid body of work that specializes in using young readers' imaginations to fuel a journey through issues that will touch their heart and affect their character.

This book is scheduled for U.S. release Sept. 13, 2016. This review is based on a pre-publication proof on Kindle, made possible through Netgalley dot com.

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