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Looking for X

by Deborah Ellis

Most girls would feel trapped living on social assistance in Toronto’s Regent Park with their mother and two autistic brothers. But 11-year-old Khyber, who has named herself for a pass in Afghanistan, is one of life’s explorers. Fortified by her knowledge of world geography and lively intelligence, Khyber navigates inner-city Toronto, defending her brothers and a homeless woman named X from jeers and injustices.

The novel’s title refers to the point in the plot where Khyber, wrongly accused of school vandalism, seeks out X to back up her alibi. X also seems to stand for some elusive destination in Khyber’s journey as a curious young person. By the end of the novel the family plans to relocate, quite abruptly, to the country, where Khyber knows her exploring days will continue.

Toronto mental health counsellor Deborah Ellis’s first novel, a runner-up in the Groundwood Twentieth Anniversary First Novel for Children Contest, is short enough to read at a single sitting. Its preteen readers will be hooked, not by the minimalist plot, but by the nimble interplay of character and setting. Khyber tells her story with an artful mixture of simple language and precocious humour. The first-person narrative also brings texture and dimension to the secondary characters, particularly Khyber’s mother, Tammy, who doesn’t fit the stereotype of single welfare moms.

A minor criticism: I found the book’s mature themes of urban poverty and autism just a tad underdeveloped.