In her latest novel, veteran YA author Sylvia McNicoll takes a typical drama centred around the old standby theme of the kid who doesn’t fit in and turns it into something more interesting.
Born in China but adopted as a toddler by a white couple and raised in Canada, 14-year-old Paige Barta endures relentless racial bullying by her school’s group of mean girls. The negative attention only increases when Paige’s best friend and fellow target, Jasmine “Jazz” Aggarwal (dubbed “Bollywood Biatch” by the bullies), begins secretly dating the very recent ex-boyfriend of the group’s Queen Bee. After discovering the gang’s plan to jump her and Jazz on the way home from school, Paige decides not to wait for Jazz and takes an alternate route home along the train tracks. Earbuds in, snow swirling, and wind howling, Paige doesn’t sense the train bearing down on her until it’s too late.
At this point, McNicoll steps away from realism. Paige comes to on a sandy beach, where she encounters her childhood best friend, Kim, a fellow foreign adoptee who “moved away” when the girls were seven. Kim explains that she actually died that year, and Paige has been rendered brain dead by the train accident. The only thing keeping her alive is her mother’s refusal to pull the plug. After pleading with Kim, guilt-ridden Paige is allowed to “go back” one week in time to ensure that Jazz isn’t attacked by the bullies. Aware she’s living on borrowed time, Paige confronts her parents about what really happened to Kim, searches for clues about her birth family, shuns her vegetarianism, gets a boyfriend, stands up to the bullies, and tries desperately to save Jazz.
Though shifts between the beach scenes and those in the “real world” are sometimes clunky, McNicoll’s story addresses a slew of important issues – including racism, self-perception, intergenerational culture clashes, bullying, and selflessness – via an engaging, multilayered plot that will give readers much to ponder. It is also refreshing to see characters from diverse cultures presented realistically, something that is still sorely lacking from most children’s fiction.