Odd Ball

Resource Links, Volume 17, Number 1 (2011)

This first novel puts an interesting perspective on what we euphemistically term “Middle School,” but what is actually a minefield of shocking proportions.

Odd Ball is both the name of an event and also a description of some individuals who do not fit the rigid and unforgiving cast of coolness and acceptance. In a back-and-forth montage of portraits of four main individuals, author Stewart gives the inside and outside story of each and how they all manage to fit into a relatively happy ending.

The book begins with a prologue about the sixth sense we all seemed to have at one point, but have lost during the intervening centuries of civilization and scientific progress. The hope and suspicion that it still exists is introduced in the character of a Latvian immigrant boy in grade 7 who seems to know how to avoid trouble even though he is the poster boy for such notoriety. His name is Jobbi, descended from a long line of marital matchmakers in Latvia, but in Canada he dresses funny, skates funny, talks funny and does not seem to know the rules of the acceptance game. However, he comes to the attention of other ‘misfits’ who see in him the potential for getting past the wall of unacceptability and decide he can “match make” at a dance they decide to call The Odd Ball by pretending to use a glow ball to match dance partners.

This happy event has to come at the end of the novel because it seems that the story of Jobbi’s parents’ problems in Latvia needs ex­plaining at some length, which provides an opportunity to illustrate the close relationship between parents and children in other parts of the world. It is an illustrative story of just how much is taken for granted in Canada (recent Vancouver riots notwithstanding).

The other characters in this little tale are the boy others consider a bit of a geek but who is fine with who he is, and bright girl who first sees Jobbi’s talent, the boy who always manages to be both cool and aware of those who are not and the girl who almost gets lost because of family issues that overshadow not only her life but the perceptions of others.

Thematic Links: Bullying; Middle School; Conduct of Life; Family Relationships; Multiculturalism
— Lesley Little

Canadian Materials, Volume XVII Number 39 (June 10, 2011)
I don’t think I can do much on my own, but I’m pretty sure I could be of help to someone who can do something — someone with brains and courage and character—maybe even someone who doesn’t realize how strong and influential he can be. I could help somebody like that . . . and I actually have the beginning of a plan in my head. That’s when I see Jobbi come slumping down the hallway toward me. His head is hanging down and he has what looks like an oversized chinstrap on his face, the kind you use to keep a football helmet on your head.

Odd Ball is easy to read. The story is divided into short narrative sections told from the perspective of a number of kids in grade eight at Central Middle School: Kevin, a hero for the geeks; Paula, a troubled girl who experiments with a new, sexy image and gets a lot of unwanted attention; Stephanie, who is desperate for a change; Soon Lee, whose mixed heritage and shy nature keep her apart from her peers; and Jobbi, a recent Latvian immigrant who becomes a target for bullies. The multiple perspectives keep the story interesting, but there are a few too many narrators. There isn’t enough time spent with some of the characters to warrant this kind of focus. Soon Lee, for example, only has two chapters from her perspective. Like many schools, Central Middle School is besieged by bullies, violence, and apathy. Stephanie believes that all of her school’s problems can be fixed by a dance, but she worries that she doesn’t have the kind of leadership skills necessary to make it happen. But, with the help of Kevin and Jobbi, who has a strange ability to play matchmaker, she may stand a chance.

There are a number of subplots in the novel, but most of them culminate in the Odd Ball dance. Jobbi’s story, which includes a history of his grandmother’s matchmaking ability in Valmiera, his current situation as a potential hockey star, and his cousin’s surprise return to Valmiera to help clear the names of Jobbi’s parents who have been falsely accused in a wedding scam, is the most intriguing and evokes the most emotion. Author Arthur John Stewart suggests that the ability to make good romantic matches is hereditary, providing an almost magical element to the story that was unexpected.

The writing is clear and engaging, and the short sections keep the story moving along at a quick clip. Some of the dialogue feels phony or forced, and it is difficult to pin down when exactly the story takes place, as some of the pop cultural references feel dated (The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek Voyager). Ultimately, I connected with many of the characters, and overall the portrayal of a middle school in crisis is relatable.
Each of the storylines is tied up together very neatly at the end, avoiding any major conflict or confrontation. Given the novel’s prologue — a beautifully written, almost magical section about intuition — in addition to the Cinderella themes and culminating ball,Odd Ball feels like a modern fairytale. This is a good way to think about Odd Ball, which is, otherwise, a contemporary realistic drama that hints at, but ultimately avoids, any harsh realities. For these reasons, Odd Ball is a great read for slightly younger readers (Grades 4-6) who like to read up but are perhaps not ready for the gravitas and dire circumstances of some contemporary YA. The happy ending will definitely satisfy some readers but perhaps leave others wanting more. — Vikki VanSickle
Recommended with reservations.

Vikki VanSickle holds a Masters degree in Children’s Literature from the University of British Columbia. She is the author of the middle grade novel,Words That Start with B, and the upcoming sequel, Love is a Four Letter Word.