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Thursday, October 20, 2011

No Ordinary Day, written by Deborah Ellis. Groundwood, 2011. $12.95 ages 10 and up

"We can't keep the sun, no matter how afraid we are of the dark. We borrow our food. What we eat becomes fertilizer that goes back into the earth and gets turned back into food. Everything is borrowed. Once I realized that, I stopped worrying about how I would survive. I didn't need to have anything. I just needed to borrow."

When I saw that No Ordinary Day was on the list of Governor-General's finalists for children's text, I thought I had better get to reading it. I am so happy to have met Valli. She is a delightful and fearsomely independent girl, despite the many obstacles she faces. She has a strong and authentic voice for the telling of her story, while being both determined and admirable.

When we first come upon her, she is carrying a coal bag and picking up coal that will make some money to provide for her family. It is a dreary and relentless life. When she makes the discovery that the family she lives with are not related to her, she hops on a coal truck hoping for a better life. The truckers do not realize she is there until they are ready to unload their cargo. They have no idea what to do with her. They cannot leave a young child to fend for herself, even though she seems quite content to do that. Rather than leave her, they take her to a brothel in hopes that the owner will care for her. While the other young women help her bathe, they discover that her feet are a mess of cuts and blisters. Valli feels nothing. The owner notices a white patch on her skin, and is frantic to get Valli out of  her house.

It is our first real inkling that Valli might dealing with the same disease as the monsters near the railroad tracks in Jharia, where she has been living. Valli lived in terror of them, with their nose less faces, and missing fingers and toes. She has no sympathy for their affliction, believing that they are paying for past sins.

Through perseverance and her quick mind, Valli makes a life for herself in Kolkata, learning life lessons from some of the people she meets, who live on the streets with her:

"You have a tongue," he said. "And it knows how to form words. You have two hands and two feet and two eyes to take in all the beauty of my pet goat. To someone who cannot speak, who cannot walk or touch or see..."
"I'm a millionaire," I finished for him. "But I don't know what to do. I ran away from the place I thought was my home. I have no place to stay, no one to look after me. I don't even know where I am."
"You are lucky," the old man said. "You are on an adventure."
"I'm scared."
"If you were not scared, you would be having just an ordinary day."

Her luck takes a turn when she meets Dr. Indra, who specializes in burns, and leprosy. It is a turning point for our young narrator. Though the road is not smooth, we leave her feeling that she will make something of her life. She has friends, she has intelligence and she has the where-with-all to do it.

Deborah Ellis does not back down from world issues that need addressing. She knows her audience, gives them stories that are often distressing and trusts them to come to care about the plight of others, to understand that their circumstances may be vastly different but they have the same hopes and dreams as those who are reading about them.

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