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13 year old Heather is the middle child of a perfect family, as she describes it - “the eighty per cent perfect Smith family, with me mucking things up with my twenty per cent random imperfectness.” Compared to her intelligent, sporty, good-looking big brother and her cute, pink princess of a little sister, Heather feels “ a bit un-wow.” But one day Heather’s dad drops a huge bombshell and suddenly family life at the 4 bedroom suburban semi becomes distinctly less perfect.
In the aftermath of the bombshell, mum emerges from a week of hibernation under the duvet and starts reinventing herself in alarming ways. 5 year old Tallie, once so well-behaved, becomes a semi-feral, tangled haired, handful of mischief and big brother, Jo Jo, starts wearing eyeliner and pursuing a rock ‘n’ roll dream. If that isn’t enough for Heather to contend with, a mystery Goth girl moves into her brother’s bedroom and starts keeping her nail varnish in the cheese compartment of the fridge. Then there is Krystyna, the stoic, Polish cleaner who is becoming a permanent fixture in mum’s life, popping round regularly to “share stories of useless husbands” and Heather’s well-meaning best friend, Becca, who has these ‘clunky’ moments when she blurts out the wrong thing. Will Heather’s family life ever be normal again?
My daughter, Beth, received this novel as a freebie a few years ago in a school book promotion. She was about 11 at the time. We don’t tend to expect too much of books that are offered as freebies, but Beth absolutely loved this, so much so that she recommended it to some of her friends. Out of sheer curiosity I read it too and although it’s clearly not meant for women in their 40s, I have to admit that I thought it was great. It is laugh out loud funny in places and very well-observed. It tackles the subject of family break-up in a sensitive way, something that most young readers are aware of, whether or not they have any personal experience of it.
The way the different family members cope with the change that is forced on them makes amusing reading, but their pain is apparent too. Although the family goes a bit crazy, it is through that craziness that it adapts, rebuilds and re-shapes itself. Paradoxically, although Heather craves a return to “boring, uncomplicated normality”, craziness becomes the new normal. The question is, if she felt like a misfit in a ‘perfect’ family, how will she fit into an imperfect one?
Despite its comic moments, the book’s tone never becomes frivolous. You never feel that it isn’t really taking the subject seriously. It shows how difficult it can be for children and adults to adjust to changes in the family and the mixed-up emotions that they experience, but it never lapses into bleakness or negativity. In fact, it is a surprisingly uplifting and reassuring read, which helps children to appreciate that where families are concerned, there is no such thing as ‘normal.’ Nor is there a normal way to cope with crisis.
My daughter is a big fan of Jacqueline Wilson books and although I also think these are great books tackling gritty, relevant subjects, I feel that Jacqueline Wilson often portrays male characters in a very negative way. Karen McCombie portrays Heather’s dad in a more rounded way so that you do have some sympathy towards him and you appreciate his dilemma too. I think it is one of the book’s strengths that it makes readers view the situation from different angles rather than just taking sides and labelling people good and bad.
I could understand exactly why my daughter warmed to Heather. She’s a wonderful, quirky main character who really does, “walk a wobbly line between cool and nerdy.” The book is narrated by Heather in a chatty, confessional style, including emails she has sent to her dad. (The inclusion of emails also has the advantage of quickening the pace of the novel, which is encouraging to slower readers.)
Heather is someone who struggles to know who she is and what she likes. Her interests and hobbies don’t tend to last too long - for example, an abortive spell at being a vegan because she missed smoky bacon crisps too much, and a star gazing hobby which ended with the telescope just being used to hang jewellery on. However, Heather does have a fascination for collecting “stupid but interesting facts” such as knowing how many bubbles there are in one Aero bar. This reminded me a little of the main character in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, another book that my daughter enjoyed.
Heather also has some endearing obsessions like rescuing abandoned soft toys and looking up songs with bizarre titles in The British Book of Hit Singles. Beth particularly loved the references to the weird song titles and was thrilled when I confirmed that there really is a song called ‘Ain’t gonna bump no more (With no big fat woman)’. Any child who has worried about being different and uncool, or has felt inferior compared to their siblings and peers will be able to relate to Heather. My daughter found her wacky hobbies and random observations on life an absolute hoot and totally inspiring. The general wackiness of the book reminded her of the Clarice Bean books, which are also big favourites, although the writing style in An Urgent Message of Wowness is not so disjointed. Characters who are a bit different always go down well with Beth.
Heather’s developing friendship with Sylv, the Goth adds a fascinating dimension to the book. Sylv’s own story is an interesting one. We see how Heather’s initial stereotypes are overcome as she learns more about the real person behind the pallid skin, weird clothes and black lipstick. It sends out the message to kids to keep an open mind and not be too quick to judge people, although this is not done in an unsubtle, preachy way. The absence of stereotypical characters is very refreshing. In fact nearly all the characters in the book reveal sides of their personalities that aren’t immediately apparent. They all grow and develop as the book progresses.
Karen McCombie explores the question of love and relationships from the perspectives of the different characters. Would life be easier if you had a ‘Loving them’ button that you could switch to ‘off’ when a person upset you? What happens when anger, confusion and feelings of betrayal get mixed up with feelings of love? The amusing yet touching story of Grandma Pearl provides another opportunity to look at the way we love different people in our lives in different ways and how love does not always obey convention. I think it is a nice touch to bring in a story from the past as it shows the impact our family history can have on us, how people can influence us even after they are gone. It shows us how a rich and happy family life involves an appreciation of tradition and continuity balanced with a readiness to embrace the new.
There is some great imagery. I love how Heather describes being the odd one out in her ‘perfect’ family – “Imagine a drift of elegant swans gliding along a river with a yellow plastic duck in their midst.” There is also a moment when she describes the impact of the bombshell as feeling like she has been picked up by a twister, like in the Wizard of Oz: “Instead of Technicolor there was just our bland, beige walls and in place of the Yellow Brick Road there was a trail of rubbish that hadn’t quite made it into the silver flip-top bin.” The juxtaposition of plastic ducks and swans, Yellow Brick Roads and flip-top bins just adds to the general zaniness of the narrative style. I like how Heather uses the sort of language kids really do speak. For instance, a bad idea is described as “the dumbest pile of pants in the world.”
Some of the funniest parts of the book focus on the character of Tallie, the little sister who turns into a demon child. In Tallie we see how a younger child tries to make sense of a stressful situation. From the reader’s point of view, the more naughty and loopy Tallie becomes, the more likeable she is. Naughty she may be, but it’s a creative kind of naughtiness. The descriptions of her dolls’ tea parties are hilarious and let’s just say she finds some rather unconventional uses for her Barbie dolls. There is also a hilarious scene involving a robot guinea pig in a gadget shop.
An Urgent Message of Wowness can be obtained new from sellers at Amazon for a mere £0.01. I have no hesitation in recommending it for children aged about 10 and upwards. It’s engaging, fun and it has many heart-warming moments without ever becoming sentimental and sugary. It also manages to be a compelling story in its own right rather than just a platform for ‘issues.’ Children who have enjoyed Jacqueline Wilson and Clarice Bean will no doubt enjoy this too.