Youth fiction worthwhile despite predictability

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January 7, 2014

Three Little Words

By Sarah N. Harvey

Orca Book Publishers

218 pages, $12.95

Reviewed by Marcie Gray

Sarah N. Harvey tries to say a lot in Three little words. Her novel for young adults ranges over the various facets of family life as she tells the story of 16-year-old Sid. He was a toddler when his mother abandoned him and his foster parents took him in, raising him on one of the Northern Gulf Islands. He leads what seems to be a contented life – the only hint that he is unsettled is the comic strip he draws of a boy who is a lonely outcast. Then a friend of his birth mother arrives on the scene, and Sid learns he has a step-brother and a grandmother in Victoria. Sid, pale and wiry and sporting lots of red curls, discovers his brother has curly hair too – but it’s black, along with his skin. From here, Harvey leads us on a journey into what makes a family, as she explores foster families, birth parents, and siblings who are different races.

These are intriguing issues for the intended audience – teenagers who are figuring out their own place in the world. But this kind of audience also demands action right from the start, and Harvey doesn’t deliver. Instead she tries to hook readers by presenting a mystery: an eight-year-old girl arrives at Sid’s house seeking foster care. Her past is unclear, but whatever has happened, she is now afraid of males and speaks only to say please and thank you. Harvey moves from this mystery to a quick but thorough introduction of the main characters, and along the way, even manages to throw in some satirical sexual humour that will appeal to this audience. But it may not be enough to keep them reading past the first couple of chapters.

If these teen readers stick with the story, they’ll be rewarded. Harvey, an author from Victoria, has written nine books for children and young adults, and her prose is polished, her narrative engaging. She introduces more mystery and a manhunt, along with the ever-present question: what does the title of the book mean? What are the three little words? There are lots of chances to guess along the way, and Harvey has fun with the chapter titles, giving each chapter three words, from “Have a Heart” to “Make My Day.”  It’s entertaining just trying to interpret how she names each chapter.

The plot moves smoothly, if a bit predictably. In a young adult novel, the pacing has to stay on track, and on occasion that’s accomplished rather conveniently, when one character or another seems to read Sid’s mind. But these are minor matters. Three little words takes major themes such as family and tolerance and respect, and wraps them in a tasty novel.  I hope teen readers will dig in.

Marcie Gray used to report and produce for CBC Radio. Today she’s writing her own youth fiction.

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