It's Not All About YOU, Calma!
by Barry Jonsberg
Published by Allen & Unwin
264 pages, 2005
The Pitbull Strikes Again!
Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski
In Barry Jonsberg's previous young adult novel, The Whole Business With Kiffo and the Pitbull, we met bright and witty teenager Calma Harrison and followed her adventures as she and her only friend, Jaryd "Kiffo" Kiffing tried to get rid of an unpopular and thoroughly nasty new English teacher, the appropriately-named Miss Payne -- the Pitbull of the title. Kiffo, the class clown, was offended by a teacher he couldn't defeat. More than that, he had memories involving his adored older brother and the Pitbull, whom he blamed for his brother's death, though he didn't tell Calma about this. Convinced she was a drug dealer, he had persuaded Calma to help him prove it.
The novel was laugh-out-loud hilarious as this unlikely duo had a long and embarrassing series of misadventures on their quest. Then, suddenly, it became deadly serious and there was a shocking twist at the end.
Now, during the year after Kiffo's death, Calma has other issues to confront. She admits, herself, that the reason she is short of friends is that she is a little arrogant and sarcastic, but she just can't keep her mouth shut. Fortunately, she has made another friend, the somewhat spaced-out but gentle Vanessa, possibly the only person willing to put up with her -- and even Vanessa becomes annoyed with her.
Then there's the matter of her new boyfriend, the gorgeous Jason, who is a passionate soccer fan (Calma knows nothing about soccer and cares less) and actually a nice person. Can she keep him after turning up to their first date with a shaven head (don't ask!)? And what about her mother, a.k.a. the Fridge, due to the fact that she's working two jobs and they have to communicate via notes on the refrigerator door? At the end of the last novel, there seemed to be some hope that mother and daughter would finally have some time together after the Fridge dropped one job. Sorry. Mum has another job. Worse, she seems to have a boyfriend, though she's been secretive about that. Then there's Calma's Dad, who left them five years ago to marry a barmaid and has turned up at the door trying to speak to his daughter, but Calma doesn't want to know.
With this new lot of problems and another quest connected with Vanessa, Calma has more than enough to keep her occupied.
Again the story is very funny, until it suddenly becomes serious. I'm wondering if this is going to be Barry Jonsberg's regular style. Perhaps it's an improvement on the usual tiresomely grim, angst-filled style of teen fiction we see so often nowadays. He is able to capture the feel of teen woes and still see the funny side. In other words, he's able to make the same point as the most angst-filled novel, but with less angst.
At least no one dies this time.
As in the last book, there are interludes between chapters that tell you something about Calma's inner emotions and concerns. Last time, they were flashbacks to her childhood, when she had first met Kiffo. This time, they're cleverly presented as a series of poems Calma writes for a good English teacher who is helping her try out different styles of verse.
Jonsberg the English teacher has fun with the conventions of English teaching. Last time it was Lady Macbeth's diary. This time, it's Calma referring to herself as an "unreliable narrator."
If you haven't read The Whole Business With Kiffo and the Pitbull, it's worth going back to it, to understand better Calma's development in this novel, but it more or less stands alone. | November 2005
Sue Bursztynski is a children's and fantasy writer and librarian based in Australia.