This award-winning book is a series of vignettes from the first person narrator, Amelia Douglas (Mia), during elementary school in the 1980s. Each short chapter gives readers an intimate insight into what it was like to belong to the Indigenous community of Tsimshian while growing up in the small coastal town of Prince Rupert, British Columbia.
There’s so much to love about Weird Rules to Follow but I’m going to start with the cover. It beautifully demonstrates both the beauty and bleaknesses of Prince Rupert while showing the bond between Mia and her best friend, Lara. Bikes also play a recurring role in the story and my heart ached for Mia when her brand new bike–that she chose over braces–was stolen.
The title perfectly captures the differences between Mia and Lara, who lives in a big house that’s different in every way to Mia’s other than location. For Mia, a weird rule to follow is not bringing bologna sandwiches to school because according to her mom, “only Indians and poor people eat them”. Lara, on the other hand, has a lot of rules that Mia can’t relate to such as not playing outside until she’s done her homework or practiced her lessons or finished her chores. Mia has no such restrictions and almost fails sixth grade as a result.
In the last few chapters of Weird Rules to Follow, Mia enters Junior High and finds herself wanting more rules to help navigate changing social dynamics and the drifting apart of her and Lara. She wonders how her mom managed to be the first in her family to graduate high school while adjusting to life off the reserve of Kitkatla where she grew up.
The narrative shifts between past and present just as Mia’s life shifts between moments of joy and profound discrimination. Tough topics like poverty and alcoholism are softened by details like “I can easily tell the difference between a Bob Seger and a BIly Joel crowd” (although I wonder if they appeal more to me as someone who grew up in the 80s than a middle grader reading the book today).
Residential schools are referred to as “those schools” and in the author’s note, Kim Spencer explains her choice to use words and spellings reflective of the time the book is set. All these issues are handled in a delicate but direct manner suited to middle graders. I’m grateful to Kim Spencer for giving me glimpses into a coming of age story so different than my own. It’s an honour to share the same publisher as this talented writer and I hope Weird Rules to Follow continues to find new readers with each award it wins!