Never underestimate the power of goodness to overcome that which others consider weaknesses: youth, poverty, lack of education, dysfunctional families. Ten-year-old Journey Song doesn’t. She looks beyond these things and the slummy side of her 1970s Eastside Vancouver neighbourhood, seeing instead a community that includes classmates, school staff, street people, community workers, and local merchants. And she’s going to need all of them in her mission to help the pandas stuck in limbo at a local warehouse while the Chinese and U.S. governments engage in a bureaucratic kerfuffle regarding action during the Vietnam War.
Though Pandas on the Eastside is narrated in the youthfully buoyant voice of Journey, each chapter brings another Eastside community member to the forefront. Homeless Kentucky Jack, mentally ill Contrary Gary, teacher Miss Bickerstaff and her boyfriend Ben Wallace, Officer Pete Baker, and grocer Mr. Huang all add to Journey’s story. Of particular importance is Journey’s father, whom she meets for the first time, and who answers some of her questions about her heritage. These answers are wanted, but just like everyone else on the Eastside, for Journey it doesn’t matter where you come from, but who you are now. Her now involves helping the pandas and hopefully spreading some happiness in a world filled with war, sadness, and conflict.
Gabrielle Prendergast, who made her literary mark with two YA novels written in verse (Audacious and Capricious), demonstrates a formidable skill for writing an intricately plotted, character-filled middle-grade novel that confronts prejudice without preaching. Yet it’s her rich setting that truly drives the story, providing the impetus for the action and, consequently, acceptance.