Full disclosure first: I know Susan Stern and have followed her career with interest for some years. I have always thought her a good writer, one of those who have from the beginning deserved traditional publication. I read a shorter version of this novel some years ago, but in this new incarnation, it’s a much bigger, more fully rounded and more enjoyable novel for young readers than it was in its first manifestation. It’s also well-produced and the illustrations add much to a reader’s enjoyment.
The main thing I noticed about the book was this: it’s written fluently and well in language that neither insults the intelligence of adults nor makes it impossible for its target audience to understand. In other words, it’s simply but not stupidly written and in the convincing voice of a young boy. The dialogue sounds fresh and believable, the characters leap off the page and you feel that by the end of the book you really know them and moreover, that you like them with all their faults.
The second thing to say is that it’s an issue book without any of the attendant preachiness or boredom of some issue-led fiction. Rafi has a problem with his writing. He can’t manage punctuation, capitalization, the nuts and bolts of physical writing. But he’s intelligent and imaginative and has a gift for drawing cartoons and a love of history. With some other teacher, Rafi would have flourished but he is cursed with the dreaded Mrs Hegarty, who’s a monster. It’s to Stern’s credit that she makes this woman at the same time horrible (and there’s no let up in her horribleness…she doesn’t suddenly undergo a last page conversion into an angel!) and also someone with troubles of her own and a life which maybe partly explains her attitudes. The way the problem of Rafi’s writing is dealt with is most cleverly done and we learn a tremendous amount about many aspects of history from reading this book, not least the printers’ strike in Russia during the time of the Revolution.
The third thing to say is that the pace in this novel never lets up for a second and there are all kinds of mysteries brought up and resolved in the course of the narrative. What is Mrs Hegarty doing near the law courts? What is the matter with Candy Floss’s mum? Did Rafi’s voodoo drawings really injure Mrs Hegarty in an almost fatal way?
Fourth, and most important of all, the characters in this novel are likeable and engaging. Candy Floss is a smashing heroine and the friendship between her and Rafi is touching and very well drawn. Their adventures together in Manchester bring both them and the place alive.
It would be good if teachers could find out about this book and use it with some of those in their classes who are having problems like Rafi’s, but children of every kind will enjoy it and I hope it does very well indeed. Rafi and Candy Floss deserve to acquire lots and lots of sympathetic friends.