In Heather Smith’s new middle-grade novel-in-verse, the wordplay grabs you first: “Jett, do you know what killed the cat?” “That’s a curious question Grandma – a dog?” So goes the back and forth between the protagonists of Ebb & Flow, an eccentric grandmother and her 11-year-old grandson. They’re into puns, homonyms, and jokes, and it’s adorable and satisfying to see an intergenerational relationship so connected through language.
But Smith’s story is so much more than clever turns of phrase. It’s a quiet tale of a boy with a gentle soul who has experienced painful upheaval and in turn does some not-so-nice things to others – then feels crushing guilt and remorse.
At the start of this deftly constructed collection of narrative poems, Jett is flying to Newfoundland – where he used to live – to spend the summer with his Grandma Jo. A year ago, after Jett’s father was sent to prison, he and his mother moved to the mainland to make a fresh start. Once settled, Jett fell in with the school bully, Junior, and did things the old Jett would never dream of. Small things at first – laughing when Junior hit someone, crashing a nice kid’s birthday party – but Jett and Junior end up hurting someone badly enough that the police are brought in. After that, Jett’s mother decides he needs a change of scenery. “I think she needed a change of scenery, too,” says Jett. “One without me.”
He’s relieved to be with Jo, who dyes her hair cotton-candy blue and paints the outside of her house to match. Jo also collects sea glass, skips stones, cooks and cleans for her struggling neighbours, and knows what to do and say to get through to a boy in pain. She starts with classic grandma stuff – cocoa, marshmallows, board games, storytelling – but moves to more serious counselling tactics, including calling Jett on his self-pity and reminding him of the boy he used to be and still is: kind and “clever as a fox.” She also laughs at his jokes – but only the good ones.
Jett’s behaviour doesn’t change overnight. He knows he must make amends for what he did on the mainland, yet he continues to act out on the island. He breaks Jo’s stuff and steals from one of her friends – adding to the list of things he needs to apologize for. While Jo’s intervention helps, Jett does the heavy lifting when it comes to working through the complicated and conflicted feelings about his father’s, and his own, actions. “A light on the waves / in the distance … I wondered / did the captain ever make mistakes? / Did he think about them / out in the dark / in the middle of the night?”
The novel is nearly note perfect (save for a scene with Junior’s dad, who’s a one-dimensional bully himself). It seamlessly jumps back and forth between Jett’s year of behaving badly and the present. The poems are like waves, some powerful and others playful, mirroring what Jo calls the “ebb and flow” of life.
In Jett, Smith has created an unforgettable character who, despite some bad decisions, is wise beyond his years and whose situation and responses will feel authentic to young readers. It’s this resonant portrayal of childhood remorse that is bound to make Ebb & Flow one of the year’s best books.