by Marjolijn Hof
Sometimes from the outside small children appear all precious and tender and in need of protection from the terrible corrupting world. They're actually pretty complex and dark little creatures, and books that write authentically from a child's perspective about darkness often freak out adults. We forget how early and how directly kids have to face pain, and how creatively they try to rationalize painful experiences. In kids fiction, the treatment of tragedy can easily fall too far on one side of either overly sensational or too careful. But every once in awhile, (think Bridge to Terabithia, Olive's Ocean, Silent to the Bone, Missing May) a book for young readers about fear, grief, or tragedy can leave even adult readers breathless. Against the Odds is that kind of book, and it's one that will definitely creep some people out. But the way it honors the protagonist's confusing fight to regain some sense of control in her life is spot on, and will resonate with kids who have been or are in the same state of suffering.
Translated from the Dutch and coming in at a tiny 124 pages, this masterfully written middle grade novel is about Kiki and her missing father. It opens like this:
My father was on his way to a war. His suitcase was packed. He just had to say goodbye.Within a few chapters, her father stops calling, and Kiki and her mother are thrown into the uniquely horrible chaos that comes along with uncertainty. Even before her father is officially missing, Kiki is obsessed with death. Her mother tries to calm her down by explaining the concept of "odds," meaning that the odds of her father not coming home are small. But Kiki misinterprets the explanation, thinking that if other bad things happen the odds are even better that the one thing she's really afraid of won't. She gets a pet mouse with the possible intention of killing it or letting it die (although she can't actually bring herself to treat Squeaky with anything but love), then goes back to the pet store and gets a runty, sick mouse, who does perish. She also vividly imagines her farty old dog's demise. These moments are dark and weird and will probably turn off some adult readers. But the eventual conversation she has with her mother about what we think about when we're scared or stressed, and the difference between the things we think or imagine and the things we actually do, is a marvelous thing and totally worth the ick factor. This is a dark book with plenty of humor and a consistently impressive voice, and it deserves as much recognition as the previously mentioned classic sad books.
Every now and then he went off to a war. At least once a year. You're heading the wrong way when you go off to a war. It's better to stay as far away from wars as you can. But my father is a doctor, and they need doctors in a war. My father likes to be needed.
-Anna, Kids Books