Wink

Authored by Rob Harrell
Illustrated by Rob Harrell
Published by Hot Key

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Ross, a middle grader, learns that he has an exceptionally rare form of cancer that affects his tear duct. Wink explores the journey of his treatment, the effect it has on him and his family and friends and presents the process of his healing, offering important messages about the profound effects of humour and music.

Apart from being a wonderful ‘solo’ read, Wink is one of those books that needs sharing with a whole class. The voice of the main character telling the story lends the book emotional impact and, being read out loud, children would readily connect with Ross – there are problems in his life which every child will immediately recognize, from fitting in at school, to cyber-bullies, to embarrassing parents!

But then, of course, there is the story about cancer. This is presented with the deepest confusion and anger and one feels this very strongly throughout. All children, whether or not they have experienced anything of this terrible illness, will find that this book asks of them a lot of questions as well as offering guidance and insight.

It is refreshing to see a central boy character with all his strengths presented as part of the story; but there is also the sensitivity and fragility of masculinity to be observed here too – the anger, the frustration, the difficulty with emotional expression. The deep friendship between Ross and Abby, too, is beautifully depicted – there is much said about the hugely positive impact that a strong, platonic relationship between a girl and a boy can have on both children.

The cartoon illustrations give moments of light and may on the surface give the impression of softening an otherwise difficult and painful story. But this isn’t the whole picture because Ross learns to deal with his pain and anger through the comics he writes. As well as having what must be the most ridiculous superhero name ever created (!), Batpig is flawed – sometimes even he, with all his superpowers, can’t cope – and his enemies are barely disguised transpositions of his fears which sometimes very nearly destroy him. At the same time, there’s a steady build-up of anxiety and pain in Ross’ life and the constant onslaught of ‘bad stuff’ is brilliantly re-imagined in the superhero’s moral and physical battle with his endless stream of enemies. The comics provide a complex subtext, of one boy’s battle with himself, physically and emotionally, the thin line drawn between the lightest of jokes and the darkest of experiences.

One other thread winding its way through the book is music. As a musician myself, I am often disappointed to find this theme on the whole superficially presented in literature, children’s and adult – it’s rare that words can really get to the heart of what music can do. Wink is one of those rare books that presents music for what it is: a healing, mystical thing but one that resists any grand gesture. The moment of climax of the story, when Ross finally plays at the concert is genuinely shocking and had me in tears: the ways in which music has flowed through him, consoling him, throughout the book finally coalesce and BURN in these last pages. Here is certainly not the place to say any more about that moment, suffice to say, Harrell says something very powerful about music too in this book.

An exceptional addition to any Year 6+ classroom or secondary school library, Wink is honest, funny and true, and should be widely read.