The Stupendously Spectacular Spelling Bee
Random House Australia, 2016
232pp., pbk., RRP $A14.99
Things have been tough in the tiny town of Yungabilla, and particularly so for the Wimple family since mum gave up her teaching job to homeschool Boo because of his asthma and Dad lost his as a journalist when the local newspaper closed down and he’s now got his own handyman business. But they are a close-knit family with Dad’s eternal optimism steering them through the roughest times, Mum’s patience and calming influence keeping everyone on track and Nanna Flo’s pragmatism keeping them grounded Every Friday night they gather around the television to watch The Stupendously Spectacular Spelling Bee with India Wimple successfully spelling every word along with the contestants. So when host Philomena Spright looks straight down the camera lens exhorting children to enter the new series, India feels she is speaking directly to her.
Which is all very well because spelling really tricky words is not India’s problem – it’s her shyness and the family’s pecuniary problems that are bigger hurdles. When she was younger and had the starring role in the school play, she was all set to go but just as she stepped on stage she saw a couple of people leaving and realised it was her mum and dad hurrying her young brother Boo outside to deal with another major asthma attack. She lost her lines and her confidence in public at that moment but gained a loud voice in her head that constantly fuels her self-doubt and her fear that it would happen again. It pops up all the time suggesting that it’s impossible for one as ordinary as her to achieve a dream So, at first she tells her family that she can’t enter and despite their protestations she sticks to her decisions. But that night she sees Dad smile, something that is rare these days, so so that she can see that smile again, she agrees to have a go.
And so the scene is set for a most heart-warming, spirit-lifting story of a family and a community getting together to overcome all sorts of obstacles and hardships to make the dream come true. This is not just about India- the whole town needs this, if only to prove that kids from the back of beyond are just as clever and polished as city kids and their own children can have the future they want.
Much has to be done to help India build her confidence and self-belief, just as much has to be done to find the money to get her to the heats and the final. There are all sorts of contestants including the super-confident as well as pushy parents to contend with, without even thinking of words that most of her age won’t have heard of, let alone use or understand (even when they are in a sentence!) It’s a story that we’re seeing playing on television all day at the moment, as our Olympic competitors from all sorts of backgrounds, overcome all the odds and realise their dream of being an Olympian. Even the contestants in the tremendously popular television program The Great Australian Spelling Bee will now come to life and be more like the real kids they know. And while for Olympian, television contestant and India alike the prize is the goal, it’s also about the journey and what they learn along the way that is the most important.
This is an inspirational story that would make a great read-aloud and a wonderful read-alone at any time but particularly at this time or at the beginning of the year as we encounter students with all sorts of concerns about what hurdles they will have to leap as a new phase unfolds and fears have to be faced. Striving for a dream, using the support of those around you, taking one step at a time, believing in yourself and allowing obstacles to become opportunities is a message that our young need to hear, especially when they seem to be surrounded by ‘instant success” and live in a world of ‘instant gratification’.
Adding to the story is the introduction of each chapter… a particular word is featured, it’s definition and part of speech and just like in the competition it is used in a sentence. This prepares the reader for what is to come, building personal vocabulary and understanding in the best way as we read on to see how it plays out. Daunting, valorous, imperious, calamitous and skulduggery all come to life!
Deborah Abela has written a most profound book, very different from much that is available to younger readers today, and created not only an engaging, what-happens-next story but one built around a family who will be readily recognisable by readers. If Miss 10 were to adopt India Wimple as her role model, I would be more than happy.