“Looking for X,” Deborah Ellis, OUP; 2006; 138 pp.

‘Mom used to be a stripper.” How’s that for an opener that grabs you? In chapter one of Deborah Ellis’ bewitching new novel, 11-year-old Khyber takes the opportunity to introduce her family. And as the opening line amply proves, she doesn’t waste any time beating around the bush. Her mother used to be a stripper; her father walked out on them years ago; and her twin brothers, David and Daniel, are autistic. There! Doesn’t that go to show that a family with a stripper for a mom will stay “screwed up forever?”

Hardly. Put away those handkerchiefs, you won’t be needing them. This isn’t a sentimental tearjerker about welfare families and their inevitable spiral downward. It’s about Khyber knowing that there could be no better family than the one she has already — and making all those who think otherwise look like a bunch of jerks.

This isn’t to say that being down-and-out is fun. Khyber’s family lives in the poorest part of Toronto, subsisting on soup for dinner, day after day. Khyber goes to a school staffed by disgruntled, poorly paid teachers and mean students, like Tiffany, who takes pot shots at Khyber’s brothers. And she hardly gets to do any of the things other 11-year-olds do; she’s spends her hours after school helping her mother with the twins and Saturday mornings working at a diner in exchange for a free breakfast. But there’s not a trace of self-pity in Khyber’s voice — she knows they have each other and that’s good enough.

Until a welfare worker walks in one fine day and suggests that the twins be sent to a special-care home. Khyber can’t stop her family from falling apart — so she heads out at night on Toronto’s toughest streets in search of the only friend she has, a homeless lady called X who’s never spoken a word to her.

What is most remarkable about “Looking for X” is the ease with which Ellis captures the unflinching honesty of a child’s voice. Funny at times, philosophical at others, this vivid account of what it’s like to be poor leaves a lump in your throat without trying to make you cry. Khyber comes alive within the pages of this book — a spunky young girl with more interesting things to say than people twice her age. You’ll feel lucky you met her.

Note: For children 10-12 years.

“Beauty Shop for Rent,” Laura Bowers, Harcourt; 2007; 328 pp.

Who would have thought that a struggling beauty shop with graying customers well past their prime could be the prime spot for a raucous teen novel?

Granny Po’s beauty parlor has been up for lease for the longest time. After all, the Gray Widows, “all over 60 — some by miles; some by meters,” are scarcely getting any younger. And even though most of them color their hair once a month, that’s hardly reason enough to stay in business. When Granny Po’s great-granddaughter, 14-year-old Abbey Garner, comes to work at the parlor, she discovers that the widows have a wit as sharp as their knitting needles. Amid the hair dryers and curling irons, in all playful banter and vicious gossip, Abbey finds the sense of family her mother could never give her.

Her mother is everything she doesn’t want to be: pregnant with her at 16; married to a “total, complete and absolute” dud; and financially bust by 30. Abbey wants to be a millionaire by 35 — and she’s already saved up $7,500 from her beauty-shop work, odd jobs on weekends, and, of course, generous tips. Abandoned by her mother on Granny Po’s doorstep for four years now, Abbey swears to shake off the curse of unhappiness that plagues all the women in her family. “The story of my life will never be written by a curse,” she says. “And never by a man.”

Then beautiful, self-contained Gena walks into the shop one day and offers to rent it. She turns the place around, winning everyone over along the way, even Granny Po, who can’t bear not to be at the helm of operations any more.

In Gena, Abbey finds a friend, perhaps even someone to compensate for the mother who was never there for her. And then her mother suddenly shows up with a wild scheme of her own and Abbey’s own plans begin to fall apart.

This hilarious novel has all the ingredients of a young-adult fiction — first love, school rivalries, and the search to discover who you are and what you’re going to be amount to. What sets it apart, though, is its rambunctious “retirement-home” characters and their “never-say-die” attitude. Perhaps they can teach Abbey a thing or two about what real family means — and how the one we create for ourselves is sometimes more meaningful than the one we are born with.

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