The best coming of age stories are often about great voyages and life-changing encounters, yet are really about internal journeys – about children making that first, significant step towards maturity, and away from the fears that have curbed them. ‘I, Emma Freke’ is about one such journey, and a girl’s struggle to find her place in the world.Released early last month, the book has already won a Moonbeam Children's Book award.
Emma Freke is smarter than anyone she knows. Right from the opening chapters of this story about a child’s quest for family and a sense of belonging, where she bemusedly endures a school counsellor’s ham - handed attempts to boost her ‘socialization skills’, we know she is different – knowing, self aware, and possessed of both the smarts and a wry sense of humour. And yet, she finds herself defined, and utterly trapped, by the connotations of her name.
For Emma would like nothing better than to be shorter, dumber and invisible. At twelve she is, by her own admission, the “..tallest, palest and saddest girl in all of Homeport.” Often mistaken for an adult, saddled with her awkward moniker, - “My mother forgot to say it out loud when I was born”, she explains to everyone who says ‘Am a freak’ for the first time - her alarmingly red hair and mortifyingly great height (“like a target visible from space”, she rues), school is an ordeal of sniggering classmates and insensitive teachers.
Sadly, home isn’t much better - a father she has never met but whose unfortunate name she is stuck with, a cranky grandfather she often has to look after, and a flighty irresponsible mother who will think nothing of passing her daughter off as an employee in order to hang on to a younger boyfriend. Worse, her best – and only – friend Penelope possesses everything she lacks – two doting mothers, a lovely house, irresistible charm and unwavering optimism. Is it any wonder that she desperately hopes she is adopted? But though her mother manages to shatter that one illusion as well, she does give Emma something else instead – a chance to meet the Frekes, her father’s side of the family.
What follows is an account, by parts sad and funny, of Emma’s discovery of herself among the Frekes . Surrounded for the first time in her life by people as tall , red headed and obsessive about order as she is, befriended and admired at last by girls her own age , Emma finally feels she belongs . Yet all is not well with the Frekes ; not only do they shy away from the family name (Frecky, they insist. Rhymes with Becky.) and cower before the family matriarch, they seem to dislike their own freaks too – short, dark haired and very irreverent Fred Freke. It will take a twelve year old’s wisdom and spirited stand in defence of a fellow freak for the Frekes to begin acting like a family, and for Emma to realize the worth of her own.
Atkinson keeps it real, and writes from the heart – reading this book, I was drawn right into Emma’s sad and lonely world, feeling all of her pain and heartache with her. Who, after all, has not felt this keen sense of isolation at some time or other in their youth? Emma’s is also a world sorely lacking reliable adults, save for the friendly neighbourhood librarian or Penelope’s mothers (a very matter of fact inclusion of an unconventional marriage in this story about embracing diversity, that had me nodding in approval as I read); yet, Atkinson’s crafting of these fumbling, fallible and very believable grown ups makes them difficult to dislike, be it Emma’s mom with her fetish for all things New Age, her elusive father or the domineering Aunt Pat. By the end, as Emma finally makes her way home and gracefully embraces her life (and name) for what it is – unconditionally her own, and defined not by other people and their ideas, but her own altered vision of herself - you realize that this simple action has changed their lives as much as her own.
Heart warming, self affirming, funny – a book for the freak in each one of us.
Thanks to Skye Wentworth sending me a copy of the book to review.