Stuff Happens: Luke
Puffin Books, 2016
120pp/. pbk., RRP $A9.99
Every now and then everyone gets scared – that’s normal. But when even the mere thought of something like a spider, being shut in a small space, going into the outdoors, the calendar showing Friday the 13th totally freaks you out, then that’s a phobia. And Luke has the most common phobia of all – glossophobia, the fear of public speaking. He can talk normally with his mates, his family, even his teacher in informal situations but ask him to speak in front of a crowd, even his classmates, and he freezes. The words just don’t come at all.
As the summer holidays come to an end and Year 5 looms, he is freaking out that he will be in 5H, Miss Hobbie’s class, because everyone knows that Term 2 is Speech Term and the whole focus is on preparing a speech for the class in the final week. And his panic continues as his name is called for 5H, even though it is just Day One of Term One. Before he knows it Term Two arrives and as he expected, it’s Speech Term. Even though his classmates know of his phobia and accept it as part of his being Luke, he labels himself a loser because of it and he is unable to overcome his fear. He can’t even think of a topic, such is his mindblock. When Miss Hobbie learns of his condition from Perfect Pupil Dan, she sets out to help him suggesting he talk about phobias generally thinking that it will help Luke understand is condition and that it is very common. But it is his Dad, the one with his own YouTube channel, who comes up with the ultimate solution. Yet, when the big day comes Luke faints – even understanding that he has a phobia and being able to be word-perfect with his speech does not negate it. Even fainting does not deter Miss Hobbie from insisting her deliver so while Luke doesn’t overcome his fear, he finds a solution that not only works for him but leads him down a new pathway, one that will build a stronger relationship with his dad.
Each year students across Australia participate in public speaking assignments whether they are comfortable like Dan or fearful like Luke. There is an expectation that it is something that comes easily to kids who talk all the time anyway, and it will help them learn to articulate their thoughts in formal situations, use their voices and body language effectively, and boost their confidence in themselves. But what if there are those like Luke? What if this expectation of having to speak, let alone compete, starts to grip them months before the actual delivery date? Teachers who seem to be comfortable in speaking to large groups because it is such a part of what we do, can learn as much from this new book in this terrific series as Luke does.
So often boys see their fears and inabilities as weaknesses. They look at the Dans of the world who seem to be so confident and so able and compare themselves, find they don’t measure up and label themselves losers affecting their self-esteem and self-confidence that it often becomes a downward spiral sometimes with disastrous consequences as they hit their teens. The facts and statistics for suicide in Australia are scary and while we are not in the top 25 countries, nevertheless there are nearly 8 deaths each day because of it. While reading Stuff Happens is not necessarily going to impact on that rate, the stories that are told are important for boys to see that no one is an all-macho hero like their comic-book favourites or even the peers they have put on a pedestal, that everyone has at least one Achilles heel and that the things that worry and scare them also worry and scare their friends. They are not alone.
Susannah McFarlane, the series editor, has created something akin to the Men’s Shed for boys with this collection of stories that are so modern and so relevant. World-class authors who create stories about the everyday things and write them in an unpatronising way that speaks directly to the reader, helping them to understand that not being able to do this or fearing that have to have an impact. It’s OK to not be “perfect” and with each story ending on such a hopeful note for the future, young readers are encouraged to seek their own solutions. No wonder this series is so popular with my boy readers.