Discussion: Part 1 of Grace McLeen’s The Land of Decoration

Alex, Lora and I marvel at how debut author Grace McCleen interweaves this tale of religious fundamentalism and bullying with laugh-out-loud humour thanks to her unforgettable lead character, a spunky 10-year-old named Judith McPherson.

The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen book cover

Alex, Lora and I marvel at how debut author Grace McCleen interweaves this tale of religious fundamentalism and bullying with laugh-out-loud humour thanks to her unforgettable lead character, a spunky 10-year-old named Judith McPherson.

Lora: Hello!

Alex: Hi!

Laurie: So the first part of The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen. Fab or fab??

Alex: Double FAB!

Lora: F-A-B!

Alex: I should start by offering my translation services. I noticed a lot of references to Kwik Save, which is like No Frills. There were so many moments when I thought “Oh. I hope they get this!”

Lora: Nappy=diaper. That’s all I got.

Laurie: Haha! OK, so what did you find so fab?

Lora: I am so endeared by Judith. What an amazing soul.

Alex: She is just such an old spirit. I love it in real life when little people seem so much older than their years; it makes a charming juxtaposition. And Judith is so funny without realizing it.

Lora: Kids often are.

Alex: I was cracking up on the bus when she was trying to see how long she could hold her breath.

Lora: I started doing it with her!

Alex: Yet that it came from such a trying situation makes it seem all the more poignant.

Laurie: It’s funny yet horrifying that she thinks she’s going to die in X number of hours.

Alex: I know. But I couldn’t help laughing. I think it’s that I am warmed by her spirit. However bad the world is, thank God for people and their spirit.

Laurie: And that’s what makes this so brilliant — that wonderful voice juxtaposed by the horrifying circumstances at school and the confines of her life at home. And she’s so very intelligent, with things like her perception of how the world looks from above and below.

Alex: That character and strength shines through despite all of that.

Lora: Those juxtapositions really are brilliant: The way she views everything is so innocent but wise at the same time.

Laurie: And McCleen is so spot on at capturing her voice and thought process. That child’s way of making things into an absolute catastrophe and yet being above so much in other ways.

Alex: It’s another book that calls into question who really knows more: the kids or the adults? The kids are still questioning the life adults have just accepted.

Lora: Definitely. Especially her father. He is so stubborn and so set in his ways.

Laurie: And the way Judith believes in the possibility of miracles. And yet her father, the supposed believer, questions her and proves that he has little faith.

Alex: It’s so unfortunate that she is his daughter; to be left with such a cold man.

Laurie: There’s obviously back story there.

Lora: I’m curious about what happened to her mother.

Alex: How heartbreaking was the “list of reasons why I know dad doesn’t love me”?

Lora: OMG, that broke my heart.

Laurie: And yet so matter of fact somehow — she’s accepted it and moved on. And she’s so forgiving.

Alex: I love that children have no BS. It’s so refreshing. I can see why people become teachers now.

Laurie: She’s never gotten angry till that moment in the schoolroom when Neil is tormenting her. Which is quite amazing considering what she’s obviously already gone through in her life.

Lora: I hate that kid.

Alex: I think she’ll get him. The descriptions of her anger are so powerful.

Laurie: And anger is such a revelation to her — the power of that emotion. And it’s a new emotion for her.

I love that McCleen tackles the subject of bullying, too.

Laurie: Yes, and not in a patronizing, pedantic way or onerous. Just tense and taut and concise and real.

Alex: I find exploring situations through a child’s eyes is really interesting. You get exactly what Judith sees and then you, as a reader, fill in the rest of the gaps. McCleen doesn’t need to spell it out any more than that. Like the teacher disappearing and coming back calmer after fumbling for his pills.

Laurie: It’s interesting seeing other characters, particularly the members of the hall, through Judith’s eyes. And I so laughed at her take on Gordon’s mint — almost as dangerous as heroin!!!

Alex: Hehe. And the poncho-knitter!

Lora: The descriptions of each character was SO spot-on!

Alex: Judith’s like an idiot savant.

Laurie: She’s the kid who will be so cool once she gets past the awkwardness.

Lora: I kept thinking that, too.

Alex: Or once people realize her powers…!

Laurie: That, too!

Alex: I was catapulted back to primary school reading this. The hot face, not knowing quite what to do with emotions, and the smell of snot — snot just seemed to be everywhere. If you had to sum up primary school in one word that would be it: snot.

Laurie: That scene was truly awful!!! Horrible child!

Lora: Kids are so cruel. I forgot just how cruel they can be to each other.

Laurie: You feel so powerless as a child, too. So unable to appeal to anyone for help, really.

Lora: Yes. And that’s why I love McCleen for tackling these issues. Because it’s true what Judith says: Going to a teacher is always the adult’s solution, but as we read, it just doesn’t work that way.

Laurie: No, nor your parents.

Lora: Kids will always find sneaky, underhanded ways to hurt each other when they want to. I’m dying to find out what happens to Neil after Judith’s last chat with God.

Alex: Me too! I am happy enough that she found the strength to stand up to him in class. I was really rooting for her. And I wish I had done the same. What a smart cookie. I really didn’t expect it to go that way. I thought she was going to be ridiculed for her thoughts about magic but ha! Take THAT, Neil!

Laurie: That was interesting, the kids actually taking an interest in her when they thought she could maybe do magic. I’m dying to find out if she has performed miracles, if she gets Neil, and if it’s the devil and not God talking to her. Because she does reference that and say the devil will try to fool you, but intelligent as she is, she doesn’t question who/what the voice is. And, really, are we to think it’s actually one or the other?

Lora: I’ve been questioning that a LOT. It seems like she just “knows” in her heart that it’s God. But it’s that childlike innocence again, right? She’s so wise in so many ways, but still very naïve.

Laurie: And trusting and hopeful.

Alex: I think it’s funny she just recites all those answers by rote when the kids ask her about why she doesn’t celebrate Xmas and why she’s a Brother. Does she ever say what religion they are?

Laurie: No. Some fundamentalist religion. Some offshoot.

Lora: It was smart of McCleen to not specify; leaves more room for imagination.

Alex: Yeah, and makes it seem more obscure.

Laurie: Even the setting feels mythic, somehow, that valley.

Lora: I actually forgot it was England until I read nappy.

Alex: Oh, that’s what I was going to bring up: Did you get the “Beerminggoomb” part?

Laurie: No!!!! I was trying to say it different ways to figure it out.

Alex: She’s writing phonetically: The character is from Birmingham.

Laurie: Good lord! I though it was Biblical. Like Beelzebub. (Just kidding!) So: fab voice, amazing tension/suspense, humour, incredible characters, humour…

Lora: I have a good feeling about McCleen. I love her writing so far.

Alex: I am in love with her. I want to marry this book, and there’s not even any sex in it. Really, it’s like she followed me as a child and went into my mind.

Laurie: So glad you’re enjoying it! Well, next week, we might find out Neil’s fate…Till then.

Alex: Bye!

Lora: Tata!