Tuesday, December 29, 2015

2016 Contenders: Kiki and Jacques, by Susan Ross

On the surface, Jacques, a lifelong resident of his rural Maine town, seems to have little in common with Kiki, a Somali refugee who, with many of her family and friends, has only just arrived. However, a bond soon forms between the two, which might just help them overcome a raft of difficulties that come their way.

There's a lot going on in Susan Ross' debut novel -- probably too much. Between the arrival of the Somali refugees, the financial difficulties threatening Jacques' grandmother's bridal shop, Jacques and the captaincy of his soccer team, a girl with an obvious crush on Jacques, Jacques' alcoholic father, Kiki's desire to play soccer, the attempts by a neighborhood lout to bully Jacques into committing crime, a possible romance for Jacques' grandmother, and probably a few I've forgotten, it's an incredibly complicated plot, and given that Kiki and Jacques clocks in at a brisk 144 pages, many of the elements get a perfunctory treatment, and many of the characters don't feel completely developed.

And yet, I enjoyed reading Kiki and Jacques in spite of all that. It's never boring, and it gets a lot of mileage out of a setting (small-town Maine when Somali refugees begin settling there) that's  underused in children's lit. Especially given all of the political talk about refugees going on in the US right now, the book feels more than a little timely, and I imagine plenty of libraries will want to put Kiki and Jacques on their shelves.

I don't see it placing in the Newbery lists; it has distinguished elements in setting, but it's not the masterpiece of construction and writing that several of the year's leading contenders are. I'd certainly like to read some more from Susan Ross, however, and I hope this book brings her work to the notice of many readers.

Published in October by Holiday House.

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