1070 Standing up for Bennie
The Jigsaw Puzzle King
Toronto: Dundurn, 2020
$12.95 / 9781459746060
by Gina McMurchy-Barber
Reviewed by Valerie Green
The Jigsaw Puzzle King by Gina McMurchy-Barber is a beautiful little book with a compelling message of hope for young adult readers.
Eleven year-old Warren thinks he has two major problems in his life. The first is that his family has recently moved and he is attending a new school.
The second is his twin brother Bennie. Bennie was born with Down syndrome, so Warren has always been his best friend and helped him since they were both toddlers; but here, at a new school, things are very different and Warren is tired of watching out for his twin.
His old school friends were used to Bennie as Warren’s brother, but at the new school Warren suddenly becomes embarrassed when people learn that Bennie is his twin and yet looks and acts nothing like him. The children are often cruel but Bennie doesn’t seem to mind. He is a happy, loving soul and it doesn’t bother him. He believes the best in everyone. It’s a different story for Warren who wants to disassociate himself from his brother in order to make new friends.
He desperately wants to be part of the “cool set” at school so when people make fun of Bennie, even though Warren knows he should defend his brother, he also knows that the popular kids at school will not be his friends. It’s a dilemma for him.
Warren becomes angry with himself for not being the protective brother he has always been. He knows that Bennie has special needs and knows that he should always be there for him. Instead he is beginning to think that life would be much easier if he didn’t even have a brother.
Things only get worse when Bennie wants to enter the school talent show by showing off his skill as a jigsaw puzzle expert. Maya, a girl at school who has befriended Warren and Bennie, encourages him and thinks it would be a great idea, but Warren thinks it would be even more embarrassing to watch Bennie on a screen putting together a puzzle at a most amazing speed — which he thinks is weird.
Not only does Bennie love doing jigsaw puzzles, he also enjoys playing a game called The Walking Dead as he staggers around like a zombie, completely unaware that the other children are snickering and making fun of him. He is only sad when his brother is not enthusiastic about those things like he used to be. Warren realizes the other children laugh at Bennie because they are poking fun at him, while Bennie just thinks they are enjoying his antics. When a boy called Taylor shouts: “Hey Bennie, you run like a duck,” Warren becomes angry and replies, “He has Down syndrome, and, yeah, maybe he’s slow, but he isn’t stupid! Not like some people, Taylor.”
During the course of the story Warren has to learn to keep standing up for his brother and not to care what others think. With the help of Maya, a persistent friend who won’t give up on Bennie, and another boy called Owen, who has been absent from school because of a tragic accident which scarred his face, Warren finally learns that he should not care what others think.
He also learns from Bennie that “every one of us is like a piece of a puzzle, each one unique, with our own special place where only we can fit. And, without every one of us, the picture wouldn’t be complete.”
Author Gina McMurchy-Barber, who lives in Surrey, skilfully manages to tell a story about the serious theme of Down syndrome with both humour and tenderness. Like a jigsaw puzzle, she fits together the light, fun topics of Bennie eating peanut butter and getting it all over his face, and boys making stink bombs, with the heart-breaking matters of a boy trying to come to terms with having a loving brother who is different but who can still live life to the fullest.
McMurchy-Barber writes from experience, having herself had a sister with Down syndrome. Her book is one that every young teenager should read, digest, and understand how important it is to be brave and kind and, above all, accept those of us who are a little different from the rest.
Valerie Green was born and educated in England where she studied journalism and law. Her passion was always writing from the moment she first held a pen in her hand. After working at the world-famous Foyles Books on Charing Cross Road, London, followed by a brief stint with M15 and legal firms, she moved to Canada in 1968 where she married and raised a family, while embarking on a long career as a freelance writer, columnist, and author of over twenty non-fiction historical and true-crime books. She is currently working on her debut novel Providence, which will be published soon as the first of The McBride Chronicles, an historical four-generational family saga bringing early BC history alive. Now semi-retired (although writers never really retire!) she enjoys taking short road trips around BC with her husband, watching their two beloved grandsons grow up and, of course, writing. Editor’s note: Valerie has recently reviewed books by Eric Walters, Gail Anderson-Dargatz, Alan Twigg, Leslie Howard, D.B. Carew, Caroline Adderson, Dean Unger, and Jody Hedlund.
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2 comments on “1070 Standing up for Bennie”
Thanks very much to Valerie Green for the lovely review of The Jigsaw Puzzle King. I am so glad you enjoyed it.