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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Toppling, written by Sally Murphy and illustrated by Rhian Nest James. Candlewick, Random House. 2010. $19.00 ages 8 and up

"I want to ask a million questions,
but when I open my mouth,
nothing comes out.
Maybe this is what they mean in books
when they say someone is at a loss for words.
I've never been at a loss for words before.
But what can I say about my friend
who has cancer?

This elegant, short novel in verse doesn't take long to read; it does, however, pack an emotional wallop for readers. It begins with school friendships, and John. John collects dominoes and has thousands. Each of his school friends has special interests. Dom is the best, and John describes him thus:

"Dominic Fraser likes rugby
and soccer
and cricket.
He likes reading funny books
and motorcycle magazines.
He likes art,
but not math;
but not science.
He has a dog named Butch
and five goldfish
and two parents,
but no brothers or sisters.
He has a computer of his own
and a Game Boy
and a remote-control helicopter.
He's fun
and funny
and honest
and pretty cool."

Don't you feel that you know Dom now? He is John's best friend, and John knows him well, too.

When Dom throws up in class on his first day back to school, everyone is aghast. Some tease, some gag, and John wonders what is wrong.  When they hear the reason and learn that Dom is in hospital, they are left with many questions and obvious concern.

 This beautifully written and illustrated novel in verse is sure to capture the hearts of those who read it, and likely to bring a tear to the eye. Once you know the story, you will totally understand the title's reference. There are times in life that almost knock us to the ground, and it is up to us to get back up.

John's voice is clear and sure when the book begins; it changes as events play themselves out. John shows his uncertainty and insecurity in gentle, unassuming ways...always focused on Dom and what is happening to him. As the details of Dom's illness are finally shared, it leaves all of his classmates changed. We are privy to John's questions and uncertainty about Dom's one can answer all of the questions that he has. The adults are helpful, and provide comfort and support when needed.

The feelings are felt, the uncertainties expressed and visits permitted when Dom is up to having his friends with him. Sally Murphy focuses her readers on the values of friendship and hope as she explores the topic of serious illness in one so young. The poignant ending will warm your heart and put you on a path to reading whatever this accomplished author next sets before us.

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