Too Much Trouble
Janetta Otter-Barry Books, Frances Lincoln, 2011.
Winner of the 2010 Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices Children’s Book Award, Too Much Trouble will have its readers hooked right from the explosive introduction to the prologue: “The gun was much heavier than I expected.” The story of how Emmanuel, the book’s likeable 12-year-old narrator, got to this point is a gripping tale that deliberately mirrors Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist in a modern setting.
Emmanuel has mastered the art of not attracting the attention of his peers or his teachers – no mean feat, considering that he and his nine-year-old brother Prince are living alone. The boys had been sent to England to escape conflict in their unnamed African country, but the uncle who is supposed to be looking after them turns out to be a drug dealer and eventually throws them out.
Salvation comes from an unlikely quarter, in the shape of Mr Green, who is just as grotesque as the original Fagin. It’s a slippery slope from there into learning how to be good pick-pockets, along with the other children Mr Green has taken under his wing. Emmanuel is old enough to have learned the roots of integrity from his parents and to feel disturbed by this new mode of survival; the same cannot be said for Prince, which adds to Emmanuel’s anguish, as the responsible older brother. And so, eventually we come full circle to the point where Emmanuel has a gun in his hand…
As is appropriate for its targeted readership, Too Much Trouble does not enter into deep analysis of the social background, or do more than sketch in the criminal underworld. We don’t find out the other children’s stories, we just know they are bad. One girl, Terri, is an avid reader, and there are some deft allusions to books (including Oliver Twist) that may or may not be familiar. If they are, it adds to the story’s strength; if not, readers may be curious to find out…
Avery (a teacher himself) credibly weaves in the ineffectuality of the teachers and other adults in picking up on the brothers’ situation until it’s almost too late. This does not mean, however, that readers are not required to consider deeply the issues involved. Because it steers clear of making any moral statement itself, as a knuckle-biting journey of a read, Too Much Trouble is likely to evoke a strong response for social justice.