Nina Sankovitch appreciates Amphibian

By Nina Sankovitch
Read All Day
October 11 2009

Amphibian by Carla Gunn is a novel told from the point of view of an intelligent, sensitive, and worried boy. Phinn is worried about the state of the environment, the relationship between his separated parents, and the bully at school. The problem is that he is right to be worried about all of these things -- ecologically speaking, the world is not doing very well, his parents are not going to get back together, and the bully at school is not going to go away -- and yet the party line of most of the adults in his life is that he shouldn't worry. His mother sends him to a therapist to learn techniques for not worrying, his teacher ignores his unanswerable questions, and his father isn't around enough to offer a shoulder or an ear or any words of advice at all.

This is very much a novel about environmental awareness and activism, with tons of very interesting, sometimes distressing, and always enlightening information about animals, their behaviors and habitats, and the threats facing their very existence. Yet it is also a novel about that very difficult age for both parents and children when the child no longer believes the blanket assurances of his parents; certain inconsistencies in the behavior of adults become apparent, assurances given prove inadequate, and the safety of everything becomes suddenly doubtful and precarious.

This novel touched very close to home, illustrating how even the best-intentioned of parents treat a serious child who poses troubling questions: with kind reassurances that ignore the truth of his concerns or with impatience masking frustration and helplessness. As a former child, I felt for poor Phinn but as a mother, I identified with his poor Mom as she struggled to provide real answers for her son but also just wanted to shout out, "Just stop thinking so much!" We know our kids will have plenty to worry about when they grow up and it agonizes us when they worry about things they can do nothing about, at an age when their only worry should be being picked for kickball. When we worry about our kids, they sense our worry, and they worry more. And when they worry more, we start to doubt our parenting and their stability.

Gunn does a great job in creating her very real and compelling characters, and placing them within a believable and relevant struggle for security in an insecure world. Although she does flounder a bit in her finish, leaving certain issues tied up too neatly, bows and all, and leaving others open and unanswered, I credit Gunn with acknowledging both the humanity and the importance of worry. Rather than medicating his worries away or trying to belittle them, Phinn's family and friends come through for him in the end, supporting him as he works to channel his worries through action and through meaningful connection with others. Maybe we all need to worry a little more, connect a lot more, and take action, rather than escape, as a way to answer our fears.

Amphibian is a good book for shared reading between adults and kids, a perfect choice for the parent/child book groups that have been started in schools and libraries around the country.

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