Gregory Bryan is a member of the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.
Eleven-year-old African-American Jacob (Jake) Tyronne DeShawn draws comic strips featuring his alter ego superhero, Jakeman. Jakeman is also known as Barbed Wire Boy because a shield of protective barbed wire erupts from his skin and encircles him whenever he feels threatened.
Jake’s mother is incarcerated in the Wickham Correctional Institute for Women for cocaine possession. His father deserted the family. The youngster lives in a foster home with his 16-year-old sister, Shoshona (“The Queen of Pain”).
Jake regularly writes to the governor requesting a pardon for his mother. These short letters precede each of the first 12 chapters of this 16-chapter novel. The story details Jake’s chartered bus trip with his sister, some children from an inner New York City neighbourhood, and some social workers into the New York state countryside where the Wickham Correctional Institute is located. The children are going to the prison to visit their mothers, grandmothers, and aunts on Mother’s Day. On the way back, many of the children experience food poisoning, the bus driver gets drunk, and Shoshona and another teen, both unlicensed, take over driving the bus. The children find a briefcase belonging to one of the social workers, which contains their records. What they discover is that none of them is expected to amount to anything in the future and probably all of them will end up in prison like their family members. Under Jake’s leadership, the children decide to challenge this erroneous notion of who they are and start by confronting the governor.
Deborah Ellis has a well-deserved reputation as a writer capable of tackling difficult subject matter in a manner that informs and engages, and in Jakeman, she is a master of her craft. Her collection of misfit characters is superbly constructed. Although seriously flawed, all are endearing in their own ways, have depth, and are entirely believable. Pre- and early teen readers will cheer for young Jake and his companions. While they are not traditional superheroes, they emerge as heroes nonetheless.
Jakeman is a powerful, entertaining, humorous, moving, and unforgettable work. Highly recommended.