'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Wednesday 24 August 2011

Review: Toppling

I had been meaning to pluck Murphy’s new book from my groaning pile for quite a while, and when faced with a momentary work break, decided I’d get started on this illustrated verse novel, aiming to make a small dent in it.

But once I began reading, I decided work could wait, and I polished off Toppling in around 15 minutes, unable to put it down.

Toppling's title is a cleverly apt reference to life and its capacity to push us over at times. The central pivot found in the book's title is revealed gently - softly laid in the hands of the young readers who will devour this book, giving hints and clues that sometimes things just don't go well in life - and how we really can cope and stay on top.

Told in the first person, present, in a dialogue fashioned on youth, we meet John, who has a penchant for creating domino masterpieces that click clack and topple after careful and creative assembly. We also meet John’s charmingly polite big sister, his parents and his school mates – Dominic, Joseph, Christian and Tran.

Everyone in this story is a normal, everyday person. Deliciously so. The kids are just kids – going to school, doing their everyday thing. The parents are just parents – doing their parenty things. The teachers are just teaching [I write 'just' lightly]. Everyone is going about their normal everyday lives with the quirks and charm that pinpoint the utter beauty of the everyday – and so make the book not only whimsical for adults, but totally relatable to its young readers.

But when John’s best friend Dominic vomits technicolour spew all over his desk and is sent home with his worried mum, the everyday lives of these everyday kids begins to change. Dominic does not return to school, and as these tight knit friends soon learn, he may not return any time soon.

Days pass as information on Dominic remains uncertain, until an emotional Miss Timms tells her class that Dominic is in hospital and he is very ill. The confusion amongst the young students is palpable and when John returns home and begs his mum to find out more, he’s horrified to learn that Dominic has cancer.

The gravity of this situation is not lost on all of the book’s characters, but Murphy has a knack for continuing her story, deeply entrenched in a young boy’s singular view of the reality and emotion that quickly surfaces. The reader intensely feels for a fearful John and his inability to completely grasp what this news truly means... It seems the details and the outcome are an adult domain. It's also terrifying for the reader to put themselves in the shoes of Dominic’s parents and their son’s uncertain future.

Murphy doesn’t dumb down the typical childlike detail that emerges as the story unfolds – not only the childlike confusion and feelings of helplessness and sadness, but also the little quirks like when the class are asked to make Get Well cards for Dominic… some children go to lots of effort, with glitter and glue, while others rush theirs just to get them done. This kind of detail brings knowing smiles to an adult reader and makes the story feel even more real.

And we all know that a story that feels real elicits real emotion. I defy anyone not to cry as Toppling unfolds to an uncertain ending. We don’t find out what happens to Dominic in the end… like life itself, nothing is certain and endings are oft unknown. This book teaches this with its subtle plot but it also teaches togetherness, friendship, support and hope.

Undercurrents to the storyline include the developing relationships between other classmates that also show children (and adults) that the reasons behind people’s odd or delinquent behaviour may not always be what they seem. Sometimes life's most random tragedies affect us in ways we can never know.

This is a gorgeous, well-written book with a delightfully heartwarming ending, and messages that will stay with you long after the last page is turned. Grab the tissues.

Title: Toppling
Author: Sally Murphy
Illustrator: Rhian Nest James
Publisher: Walker Books, A$15.95RRP
Format: Soft cover
Publication date: 1 March 2010
ISBN: 9781921529429
For ages: 8-12
Type: Junior Fiction

Teachers' Notes