My Catchphrases

Friday, 19 November 2010

Review: When I was Joe by Keren David

Title: When I was Joe
Series: When I was Joe
Author: Keren David
Publisher: Frances Lincoln Children's Books
Publication Date: 7 Jan 2010

Source: Library

Synopsis: From Amazon
When Ty witnesses a stabbing, his own life is in danger from the criminals he’s named, and he and his mum have to go into police protection. Ty has a new name, a new look and a cool new image – life as Joe is good, especially when he gets talent spotted as a potential athletics star, special training from an attractive local celebrity and a lot of female attention. But his mum can’t cope with her new life, and the gangsters will stop at nothing to flush them from hiding. Joe’s cracking under extreme pressure, and then he meets a girl with dark secrets of her own. This wonderfully gripping and intelligent novel depicts Ty/Joe's confused sense of identity in a moving and funny story that teenage boys and girls will identify with - a remarkable debut from a great new writing talent.

Written in first person narrative from Ty/Joe's perspective. At fourteen, he has grown up in a low income, rough, multi-cultural part of London. The product of a teenage pregnancy with no contact from his father. He does have a terrific loving family especially in the form of his Grandmother and Aunts. He has a good relationship with his Mother although he has never tested the bonds before, they have always had to struggle for money. As a unit they have given him a firm moral conscience; making the main thread of the story even more astounding. I did find his mother rather immature/selfish having relied on other people to provide nurture for Ty, you can appreciate that she was just a child herself when she had him. He attends an alleged privileged all boys school where his background and lack of money make him a target for bullying.

The plot is unraveled in the form of recaps of the events leading up to the placement in witness protection. The depiction of Police treatment to witnesses was infuriating. You can understand to a certain degree how people who witness crimes do not speak out. As witnesses are treated as criminals themselves, it is easy to see why crimes go unreported/people look the other way all a reflection of today's society which really saddens me. The generally thinking that it was 'normal' to carry a knife was beyond belief.

Keren has a very compelling writing style, drawing the reader into the plot. It is very British in its references and language, vast cultural differences are depicted giving amazing insight into the difference a small distance can make to your surroundings and attitude. It confounds me that teenagers are drawn to using what is classified as 'gangsta' language in order to appear threatening, it does make me as a parent question the affect that television has on youths/society. The hysterical Simon Cowell reference lightens what could be an overwhelming dour mood.

The acerbic look at how conformity is encouraged and instilled via school uniform in Secondary schools, was so accurate it was scary. Working in a Secondary school I can completely picture the inner workings of peer pressure even down to the name calling. The first thing to be attacked is their sexuality, the term 'gay' is used to describe anything from sexuality to being geeky/dorky, it all comes under that one classification. Making it easy to understand Ty/Joe having his sexuality questioned by so-called friends. I couldn't really understand why Ty was friends with Arron other than for protection. Lots of reverse racism is interwoven into the narrative; in my opinion this is not taking seriously enough. In today's multi-cultural politically correct society remarks made to ethnic minorities are blown out of proportion but when the reverse occurs (ethnic minority to white British) nothing is done about it. This makes me want to stand on my soapbox and rant.

In the beginning Ty comes across as a bit of a 'sheep', he doesn't stand out, has only one 'friend' and stays out of the way. Peer pressure is a very powerful thing, wolves lead and sheep follow as a way to be popular. However, when he becomes Joe his whole persona alters, he is more outgoing and popular. Making me think that Ty/Joe thinks he can be a different person just because he has a different haircut and cool clothes.  Or whether a change of environment promotes a fresh start. Via the narrative you get the impression that Ty really likes being Joe. His talent for languages is under-appreciated by everyone. I almost felt as if Ty had a split personality. I completely adored the use of irony showing that Ty/Joe has to live a lie because he told the truth.

Although circumstances and peer pressure conspire against Joe. Escalating gang violence showing parallels of events with both Arron and Carl. Varying degrees of bullying/intimidation/conformity and social hierarchies are all shown in graphic detail. The ridiculous politically correct ways of dealing with bullying are depicted in all their absurdity. Without severe punishment for this kind of behaviour you can easily see how it escalates. Bullying is shown in many forms: social and economic standing/religion/sexuality/the type of clothes you wear/your parents not meeting conventional norms. It seems to me that if someone wants to bully another person they will find a way to do it no matter what it is over. Frighteningly it was shown how easily situations can be manipulated. You are left wondering if Ty/Joe/Jake is so mixed up as a product of his environment.

Some really tough subjects are examined within the narrative: self harm/suicide/gangs/drugs/sexuality/teen pregnancy. Also the stress that being bullied has on people.

A really powerful and compelling story. A quite brutal description of both sides of bullying and its consequences.


  1. This is such an excellent review. You manage to convey the main points of the view while also offering interesting insights and opinions on the subject matter. I have seen this book reviewed time and time again and have never been even remotely interested in reading it but after your thoughtful analysis I shall definitely be adding it to my wish list. Thanks!

  2. Thank you for a great and insightful review, I had no idea about the subjects it covered. I'm adding this to my wish list now.

  3. What a GREAT review. And I really, really loved this book.


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