Sunday, February 9, 2014

Book Review: Toughboy and Sister by Kirkpatrick Hill (1990)

Toughboy and Sister is a 1990 middle grade novel by Kirkpatrick Hill, author of one of my favorite books of the past year, Bo at Ballard Creek. When Toughboy and Sister’s mother dies in childbirth along with her baby, the two kids are left in the care of their father, who has a drinking problem. For a while things are okay, but once their dad begins drinking again, it’s just a matter of time before things go very wrong. While on a fishing trip away from their Alaskan village, Toughboy and Sister witness their father’s death, and then must struggle to survive on the food their father has collected and anything they can hunt or make themselves. With nothing but a battery-operated radio and a curious bear for company, the two kids find a way to survive not just emotional pain, but true physical hardship, until someone comes to their rescue.

This is a quick and powerful story, with a much more somber tone than Bo at Ballard Creek. It might be on the same reading level vocabulary-wise, but Toughboy and Sister definitely has more sophisticated subject matter which requires greater maturity on the part of the reader. While Bo at Ballard Creek focuses on the day-to-day fun of life in 1920s Alaska, this book focuses more on the dynamics in the relationship between two siblings in present-day (early 1990’s) Alaska and how their bond as siblings helps them overcome the difficulties they face. Though there are some mentions of the Athabascan culture and of the way people live in Toughboy and Sister’s village, this book is not as educational about Alaskan culture as Bo at Ballard Creek. Rather, the setting is secondary to the characters, and the characters’ surroundings are involved more as obstacles than as places to explore and enjoy.

Young readers looking for survival adventures similar to Hatchet and My Side of the Mountain will be drawn to Toughboy and Sister. Though the cover of the first edition (which is the one I read) is pretty dated-looking, and one that would not have caught my eye if I wasn’t already familiar with the author, I think a booktalk mentioning the death of the kids’ parents and a possible bear attack should be enough to get kids past that cover and into the story. The book has large type and is just over 100 pages, too, so reluctant readers and procrastinators might also consider it a good choice for a book report, especially one that is due in just a day or two. The short chapters and compelling subject matter also make it a manageable read-aloud for busy fourth and fifth grade classrooms.

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