Book Talk: Scars by Cheryl Rainfield and Dancing Through the Snow by Jean Little

I’ve got a pattern going where I finish and review books in pairs. It has added a new perspective to the way I look back on what I’ve read, and it is an easy way to push a review beyond summary + opinion + recommendation. It is challenging and fun, so I’m going to stick with it as the model for our Book Talks.

From the covers, you would never guess that there are any connections between Dancing in the Snow and Scars. Let me just say there is darkness in each one and bright, colorful moments, too. Each of the stories features a middle school girl who is struggling to understand and get past abuse.

Jean Little novelsIn Dancing Through the Snow, Min is on the move again. After her (probable) father’s girlfriend abandoned her at the Canadian National Exhibition (museum) to protect her from abuse, Min has been in four foster homes, each worse than the last. She saw little reason to talk and has mastered the “stone face” so no one could see her feelings. Min is once again back at the Children’s Aid office. She calls it the recycle bin. Knowing that she was orphaned not adopted, Min is starting to believe what the bullies at school say: she is garbage girl, her parents (whoever they were!) just threw her away. She doesn’t know what a family is and she’s never in a place long enough to make friends. Is that really too much to ask?

Like Min, Kendra (Scars) is also searching for “normal.” She was molested as a child, but cannot remember her attacker. Through counseling and her art, she is getting closer to identifying her assailant … and he knows it because he is stalking her and sending her reminders – “never tell, or I’ll kill you.” As her anxiety soars, so does her need to cut herself to stop the pain. Kendra’s relationship with her mother was never close, and her doubts about the abuse have not helped Kendra. Now, with her father losing his job, they want to cut back on expenses by ending Kendra’s counseling – the thing helping her the most. Kendra is also hiding her relationship with Meghan because her parents won’t accept that she is gay. They blame the abuse for “causing” it.

Unlike Min, Kendra’s journey to overcoming sexual abuse is central to the plot. Kendra is more “defined” by it, as it is all consuming in her life. That said, Cheryl Rainfield’s emphasis is not on the acts themselves; Kendra’s flashbacks are “snapshot” memories: an arm, a whisper. The story is built on the aftermath: her own frustrations and fears about identifying her attacker and getting past the abuse;  the environment at home, her relationship with her counselor, relationships at school, and her friends – both adult and peer.

Rainfield does an exceptional job helping the reader understand Kendra, both as a typical teen struggling with growing up, and also as a young girl who is harming herself to deal with being a victim of sexual abuse. She makes it clear that these kinds of pains are too big to handle “alone.” Kendra tells the story in first person, so there is a lot of dialogue … just the kind of conversation you need to hear. There are multiple examples of counseling sessions. She finds quiet, non-judgemental support in Mrs. Archer, her art teacher, and Sandy, a long-time artist friend of her mother’s. Sandy, who is gay, is Kendra’s refuge. She knows she always has a safe place to go. Sandy also helps her sell her art so she can continue to pay for counseling on her own.

In Dancing Through the Snow, Min believes she has found that “safe place” with Dr. Jessica Hart. After eavesdropping on Enid Bang’s conversation with a social worker, Dr. Jessica Hart steps in and “kidnaps” Min from the Children’s Aid office. Dr. Hart has known Min since that fateful day and KNOWS Enid is lying. So now she is taking Min home … but what happens when Dr. Hart changes her mind? Min must work through the nightmares, her distrust, anticipation of being abandoned again, as well as her anger of the life she’s had so far. What Min quickly learns is that Jessica was also orphaned as a child. She knows her mother is First Nations, but she doesn’t know who her father is. She, too, moved from place to place. Min also finds a friend in Toby, Jessica’s godson, and a severely injured, abused dog she names Emily. Because of the parallels to her own life, Min – with Toby’s help – is determined to find out who abused and abandoned the puppy.

Both girls are very “real,” and I finished the books happy and hopeful for each of them. Min’s story is a little more predictable, as you’re fairly certain that she will become Jessica’s daughter. Kendra’s journey is different, but equally hopeful. At the end of Scars, Cheryl Rainfield offers an author’s note about her own “unbearable emotional pain,” and that she cut herself, too. She also includes an outstanding list of resources for parents, counselors, and teens.

Jean Little novelsIn its own way, Dancing Through the Snow offers resources, too. Min loves to read, and Jessica has a house full of children’s books about being a foster child. Some I knew, like The Great Gilly Hopkins, but others I didn’t, like Chance and the Butterfly. I wish they were listed at the end. The other thing I wish is that the cover better reflected who Min was.  Min kept her hair in a tight braid. The author frequently references this fact. Compare this description of Min’s first experience out in the snow to the cover

She stretched out her arms in all the space and whirled in a dance, celebrating freedom. Her braid swung out behind her and the wind sang in her ears. She felt her whole face shining.

There is no braid on the cover. Although it seems minor, it isn’t. When she was found, Min’s head was shaved of all her curls. So when it grew out, Min braided it to keep it tight and often played with the braid when she was nervous or upset.  In the last scene of the book (p 241-242), Min cutting her braid is a symbol of starting a new life.  I also don’t think her ethnicity is accurate, but I’m not going there.

Both Dancing Through the Snow and Scars are exceptional stories for middle grade and young adult, respectively. [The graphic descriptions of cutting require a more mature audience.] Min is a character who will appeal to girls; Kendra’s persona, to my mind, is more universal. They are great read-to-yourself books, but they also lend themselves to small group and book-club-like discussions. They are also ideal candidates for a parent-teen book club and dormant readers. I couldn’t put either book down!

This book talk is my March contribution to the People of Color book challenge. Neither Min’s nor Kendra’s ethnicities are pre-determined, which allows readers to see themselves more visibly. In becoming Jessica Hart’s adopted daughter, we also introduce a multicultural family.

11 responses to “Book Talk: Scars by Cheryl Rainfield and Dancing Through the Snow by Jean Little

  1. I so enjoyed reading your reviews – you are one of the best! Thank you for putting so much time and effort into your work.

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  3. I don’t enjoy reading books like this but whenever I do, I almost always resolve to read more. I guess because these are stories that need to be told, to help others survive and to shed light on dark situations.

    1. Books like this are tough for me. When it’s a book that starts staying with me immediately, I’ve been known to sneak a peak at the end to see if I am prepared to see it through. Like you, I’m not naturally drawn to realistic fiction, but when it is done right. Wow!

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