Recently on the Book Chook blog, I mentioned tribes, and how important stories are to them. We all belong to different tribes, or groups, and that very belonging is crucial to our sense of self-worth.
In Sally Murphy's latest book, Pearl Verses the World (Walker Books Australia, 2009), Pearl feels as though she is in a group of one at school. She doesn't belong to the football group or the library kids' group. She can't write the sort of rhyming poetry her teacher wants. She feels as if she is fading into invisibility. At home, her tribe consists of Granny, who lies in bed and drools, and Mum, who can't cope. Yet the constant in Pearl's life is that she belongs to her family of three.
When Granny dies, Pearl is devastated. Granny was the one who taught her that poetry doesn't have to rhyme, and Pearl slowly finds the strength to write a poem that says what is in her heart, a poem that says goodbye to her beloved Granny:
"... She wasn't here
For long enough
But I am glad
Pearl Verses the World grabs at your heart from the moment you see the front cover, and notice skinny, knobbly-kneed Pearl with her fine hair escaping from its plaits. Heather Potter's art work really does add another dimension to this book - the line drawings are realistic, but at times whimsical, like when Pearl is desperately trying to rhyme with "-at" words, and Potter depicts her as the Cat in the Hat! The many illustrations make this a great novel for kids who are intimidated by lots of text, as does the free-verse format Sally Murphy has chosen.
Not every child likes to read what I think of as "exploding underpants" books. Not every child is a popular extrovert. Pearl Verses the World is a gentle story about a gentle child. Sally Murphy allows Pearl to speak to us about her life, almost as a stream of consciousness, so that we feel we are sharing her thoughts. We understand Pearl's fear and confusion, and rejoice when Pearl realizes that she is no longer a group of one. Murphy's creative use of language weaves yet another layer into this heart-warming book.
I believe it's important to offer books to children that allow them to consider the big issues in life. Death and dying, feelings of abandonment and lack of power are all issues kids must eventually face. Books like this are empowering, they help a child know she is not alone, and that there are ways of coping, and being strong. Pearl Verses the World would make a great acquisition for libraries, and be an excellent choice for study in the primary school. It is a novel that offers a voice to every child who needs one.