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Based on a True Story, Contemporary Realistic Fiction, Courage & Resiliency, Middle Grade Readers, Navigating Difficult Life Situations, Self-Image/Self-Esteem, Teacher & Parent Recommendations

WINK by Rob Harrell

I really enjoy Rob Harrell’s delightful Life of Zarf series so I was really excited to see he was coming out with a contemporary realistic fiction middle grade novel. Every new book by authors I enjoy comes with great excitement to discover what new treasures are in store and that small niggling fear that the new work won’t live up to my expectations. There is no need for that fear when you pick up Wink!

Wink is funny and tender and REAL. 7th grader Ross goes through proton radiotherapy for a cancerous tumor in his right eye. Tired of being “the sick kid” at school, Ross is desperate to blend in but that is made impossible by some of the side effects of his treatment. Wink follows Ross through his treatment as he grapples with cyberbullying, abandonment by a friend, as well as the anger and fear that come with cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Although the story is mostly focused on Ross, the reader also sees how Ross’ situation affects his parents and close friends. Ross’ father and stepmother are more developed than the average in a middle grade novel. Ross’ feelings toward them vary according to what he is feeling and they cope with his behavior in ways that are constructive and loving without being punitive or submissive–no easy task for any parent of a teenager. I love Ross’ good-natured snarkiness and his willingness to sometimes be vulnerable. I particularly like his ability to recognize and try to fix the places where he overstepped someone else’s feelings. The attention to emotion regulation skills in this book is extraordinary–even more so because they are not highlighted specifically in any didactic fashion; their use is simply illustrated in the context of the logistics and HUGE emotions that come with the situation. There are examples of characters both succeeding and failing in these efforts which serves to strengthen the story’s connection to reality.

Harrell brilliantly depicts Ross’ connection to music as a way to channel his feelings. So many of us have songs or music styles that evoke specific emotions and can offer (depending on the emotion) the chance to hold it close or release it. I know that as a reader I had a visceral response when Ross gives himself permission to really express everything he’s feeling through music.

In my room, I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror–big dumb hat and all–and I really want to scream. I’m not sure who to be mad at, so I’m just mad. At the world. At myself for having stupid cancer….

Twenty seconds later, I’m on the bed, pillow over my head and awash in Ripe Sponge. [a band] I listen to that first song four times–my muscles slowly relaxing–before I move on to the second.

Then the third.

Fourteen songs about horny vampires and tragic love stories. Life on the road, teenage rebels, angry loners and songs with screamed lyrics I mostly don’t understand. Some of these are my favorites. The guitars seem to say what I’m feeling the best.

The guitars.

Stuttering rhythm lines. Wailing solos. Even the finger-picked ballads strike a nerve. Not to sound weird, but it’s like a whole new language.

One I didn’t know I needed until now.

If anyone had told me I would laugh while reading a book about a child dealing with cancer I would have been skeptical, to say the least. Full of humor and heart, Wink beautifully illustrates a young man and his family and friends navigating the circumstances around cancer diagnosis and treatment. It’s not a spoiler to say that as the story ends not everything is as Ross would like it to be, but he feels in a better place from which to handle it. I adore Ross and I love Wink! I highly recommend this one as a read-aloud or an independent reading choice at home or in the classroom!



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