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#MiddleGradeMonday: The Catagorical Universe of Candice Phee by Barry Jonsberg

candiceEveryone has problems. Candice has solutions.

Candice Phee isn’t your typical twelve- year-old. She has more than her fair share of quirks. But she has the very best of intentions and unwavering determination to make sure everyone around her is happy. Which is no easy feat when you’re dealing with a pet fish with an identity crisis, a friend who believes he came from another dimension, an age-old family feud, and a sick mom. But she is on a mission. And she’s going to fix it all, even if it means risking sea sickness, guarding an edge of a cliff, and dancing in the rain. Her methods might be unique, but Candice will do whatever it takes to restore order to her world and make sure everyone is absolutely, categorically happy again.

Hilariously honest and wonderfully touching, “The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee” will have you rooting for the underdog and celebrating the oddball in each of us.

Note: This book has also been published under the title “My Life as an Alphabet”

Candice Phee is a twelve-year-old girl living in Australia with her mum, her dad and her goldfish (named Earth-Pig-Fish). She enjoys school (at least, she enjoyed her classes with Miss Bamford), and she is very smart and quite sensitive, despite what many people would think. There’s no doubt that Candice is different from her peers; she is called Essen (short form for S.N., or Special Needs), and she has an extreme and literal view of the world around her that often causes her some confusion. She thinks mightily, our Candice, and she wonders about things that other might pass off such as whether or not her pet fish sees her as a God for providing food everyday.

While Candice would not describe herself as lonely, she is alone in many ways. Her mother has retreated into a dark depression since the death of Candice’s younger sister and a cancer diagnosis, her father hides out in the back shed, attempting to come up with a new moneymaking idea after arguing viciously with Rich Uncle Brian, and even her Rich Uncle Brian is adrift and alone. Even her best friend believes that he’s not really supposed to be there, and is convinced that he needs to return to another dimension by jumping out of a tree on a regular basis. Candice cannot talk to people easily, as she cannot look them in the eye and prefers writing out note cards to face-to-face conversation.

“I had plenty of friends already. Well… that depends on perspective. As far as I was concerned, I had plenty of friends. As far as everyone else was concerned, I didn’t have a friend in the world. Does that make a difference? I’m not sure.”

I love Candice for many reasons, but mainly for her ability to channel her inner determination into action. In fact, it is Candice’s ability to find joy in the darkness that makes her so wonderful. Unhappy with the state of her family, she puts plans in place to try to make things better. “Families are fragile.” she reflects, “Mine did not die when Sky did, but it took a battering and came out bruised and limping.” Despite this, Candice is determined to do something about it. Wanting to see her parents happy again, even for only a day, she recreates their biggest wish – to visit New Oreleans – in their own kitchen. When she no longer sees the point in sitting at her little sister’s grave on the anniversary of her death, she gets up and dances in the rain. Faced with an unrelenting and frankly horrible bully, Candice refuses to back down, instead finding something good that stuns the bully into reluctant acceptance.  Candice has a Very Good Heart, even if the execution of her ideas may go off the rails a bit. Slowly and surely, the people around her begin to respond and to make the changes in their own lives, and I must mention how much I enjoyed that the author allowed certain issues to remain at the end of the story. There is no neat or easy response to depression and grief, and it takes time to rebuild a family, so I was pleased to see that not every loose end was tied when I closed the covers.

By the time I had finished this slim treasure of a book, I loved Candice  as if she was my own niece. How could I not love her for taking the time to write exactly twenty-six chapters (one for each letter of the alphabet) about her life, including letters to her non-responsive penpal in America and reflections on her life and actions? All she wants is to make the lives of the people around her better, and she’s willing to help to make that happen. Her eccentricities made her unique and interesting, and completely engaging. The Catagorical Universe of Candice Phee is the perfect book to give to the reader who feels that s/he doesn’t fit in, that no one likes them, or that life will never get better.  At the end of the story, I knew that Candice’s Rich Uncle Brian had it right:

“Do you know what the best thing about you is, Pumpkin?” said Rich Uncle Brian finally.


“You sing your own song, Pumpkin, and you dance your own dance. You see the world differently from the rest of us. And you know? Sometimes I think I wish everyone saw it the same way you do. I know the world would be a better place.”

The Catagorical Universe of Candice Phee is published by Chronicle Books, and distributed in Canada by Raincoast Books. A copy of this book was borrowed from the local library (support your libraries!). It is also available for purchase from your fine book selling establishments, such as Indigo and your favourite independent bookseller. ISBN: 9781452133515, 244 pages. 

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