Ebb and Flow – Heather Smith

First, an admission. I used to be a free verse snob, prejudging something I had no experience reading. That all changed the day I discovered Ellen Hopkins and realised that some of the most emotional and engaging books are written in this format, so I was excited to see what Ebb and Flow had in store for me. Beside the joy of appreciating the story and characters, it also had me ugly crying in the form of “This is so beautiful!” 😭. So, to all of the free verse authors out there, my sincere apologies. I’ve reformed and am converted now!

The past year of Jett’s life has gone from bad to worse. His father is in prison, his mother moved him to the mainland and Jett has allowed victimhood to define him and his behaviour. As a result he’s made some really poor decisions and he’s been sent to stay with his granny for the summer, a well needed time out for Jett and his mother.

I adored Jett’s cotton candy granny, whose hair colour coordinates with her house colour. She is one of the coolest grannies ever! Her unconditional love for Jett came across as so genuine. She loves him no matter what and she gives him the space he needs to work through the guilt and shame he’s carrying about the events of the past year, yet also gently pushes him when he needs it.

Jett’s granny reminded me of my Nan and that’s probably one reason why I instantly connected with her. My Nan and I also played board games (except she always played to win whereas Jett’s granny takes it a little easier on him), she’d take me to visit her friends (Jett’s granny takes him visiting as well) and she was my favourite person in the entire world (I expect Jett feels much the same). My Nan passed on her love of reading, her quirkiness and her ‘normal is boring’ attitude to me.

The most valuable thing Nan ever gave me, which mirrors what Jett’s granny gives him, was her unshakeable belief in my goodness and ability to do whatever I set my mind to. Even now, over a decade after she went to hold my seat at the canasta table in heaven, I can still hear her telling me, “I knew you could do it” every time I accomplish anything, big or small.

Without Jett’s granny I expect things would have turned out a lot differently for this 11 year old. I know he’s going to look back years from now and credit his granny and those experiences with her that summer with the man he becomes. Now I’m talking about him like he doesn’t live on pages but if any author can make me ugly cry at how beautiful their book is, their characters are going to become a part of me. Especially when I cry while thinking about them to write my review – that’s a first!

Jett’s summer is one of respite, of taking stock and learning to take responsibility for his actions. He has the opportunity to consider the kid he was before he went to the mainland, who he became once there and the man he wants to become. Shining a spotlight on how difficult it is to face up to the actions you regret and forgiving others as well as yourself, Jett’s journey is ultimately one of redemption and hope.

While this is marketed as a children’s book, it has a lot to offer adults as well. The writing is simply gorgeous and reminded me why I love this author. There’s at once a simplicity and depth to the way Heather Smith writes and as with The Agony of Bun O’Keefe I was happily motoring along, loving the book but not realising my emotional investment in her characters until the ugly cry escaped. I wound up on the final page of Ebb and Flow with a satisfied sigh and tears running down my face, and the only word I could think of was beautiful.

Heather Smith’s writing reminds me of the feeling I get reading a Billie Letts book. There’s a vulnerability, openness and loveable quirkiness in their characters, and you’re permitted access to the real person beneath the façade. As you gradually delve into Jett’s rotten year you meet Alf who is adorable and childlike and the alleged villain of the story who I really liked, and whose emotions and acts I could empathise with. Cotton candy granny will remain my favourite character in this book, but she definitely had some pretty impressive competition for that title.

Ebb and Flow is both heartbreaking and heartwarming. I half want to say that I hope schools use this book as part of their English curriculum but if schools are still like they were back in the olden days when I attended, they tend to analyse the fun out of really good books, and I’d hate for that to happen to this one.

Content warnings include domestic violence and child abuse.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Kids Can Press for the opportunity read this book. I can’t wait for Heather Smith’s next book!

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

One summer,
after a long plane ride
and a rotten bad year
I went to Grandma Jo’s.
It was my mother’s idea.
Jett, what you need is a change of scenery.
I think she needed a change of scenery, too.
One without me.
Because that rotten bad year?
That was my fault.

Thus begins the poignant story, told in free verse, of eleven-year-old Jett. Last year, Jett and his mother had moved to a new town for a fresh start after his father went to jail. But Jett soon learned that fresh starts aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. When he befriended a boy with a difficult home life, Jett found himself in a cycle of bad decisions that culminated in the betrayal of a friend – a shameful secret he still hasn’t forgiven himself for. Will a summer spent with his unconventional grandmother help Jett find his way to redemption?

Writing in artfully crafted free-verse vignettes, Heather T. Smith uses a deceptively simple style to tell a powerful and emotionally charged story. The engaging narrative and the mystery of Jett’s secret keep the pages turning and will appeal to both reluctant and avid readers. This captivating book offers a terrific opportunity for classroom discussions about the many ways to tell a story and how a small number of carefully chosen words can have a huge impact. It also showcases the positive character traits of empathy resilience, courage, and responsibility. 

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