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The Jigsaw Puzzle King

by Gina McMurchy-Barber

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special needs, siblings, new experience
list price: $12.99
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
published: 2020
ISBN:9781459746060
publisher: Dundurn Press
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Recommended Age, Grade, and Reading Levels
Age:
9 to 12
Grade:
4 to 7
Reading age:
9 to 12
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Awards
  • Short-listed, SYRCA Diamond Willow Award
  • Short-listed, Silver Birch Award
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Description

2021 Silver Birch Fiction Award — Shortlisted • 2022 Diamond Willow Award — Shortlisted

Being yourself isn’t always easy.

When you’re new in school, all you want is to fit in. When eleven-year-old Warren and his family move to a new city, his twin brother, who has Down syndrome, attracts too much attention for Warren’s liking. Bennie’s different and doesn’t care about it. But while Bennie may be oblivious to those who are curious or uneasy with him, Warren notices every smirk, comment, and sideways glance.

Warren is weary of flip-flopping between trying to be just like everyone else and being the protective brother of a boy with special needs. Sometimes he thinks his life would be easier if he had no brother. But what he really needs is to stop worrying about what other people think.

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Excerpt

“How’s it going, Warren?” asked Mom, that first day in our new house.

“I’m bored,” I said, picking at the scab on my knuckles. I got the scratch the day we left the old farmhouse in Smiths Falls when I was trying to make Jelly, my cat, go into her kitty kennel. Looking at the orange furball now curled comfortably on my bed, I figured I’d been forgiven, because she looked as if she didn’t have a care in the world. Life was like that for cats — simple. As long as they had their people, a bowl full of food, and a place to sleep, that was enough. “I wish I had a friend to play with.”

“Now that you’re unpacked, why don’t you go outside and play with your brother?”

“Aw, Mom. All he wants to do is play make- believe. I need a friend who likes to do the same things I like. Bennie can barely kick a soccer ball — and forget about hockey.”

Mom smiled. “Well, maybe he’ll grow into those things one day. But as for make-believe, he’s outside with a bunch of kids right now and they sound like they’re having loads of fun playing one of his games.”

“He is?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Mom,” I sighed, “you let him out alone? You should’ve told me.”

“Well, I’m telling you now. Besides, he’s not far.” She was almost laughing at me. “So what are you waiting for?”

Outside, I followed the sounds of laughter and screams coming from the empty lot two houses over. There was Bennie, moaning and staggering after some boys and girls who darted in and around him, laughing hysterically. They urged him to catch them, but they were much too quick. My guts twisted into a knot as I watched my plan for a carefully crafted fresh start melt away in the late August sunshine. Sometimes people who didn’t know Bennie thought he was weird. I liked to ease him into new situations slowly so we might avoid that.

Just then, Bennie saw me.

“Hey, everybody, that’s my big brother, Wart. Can he play, too?” Blood rushed to my cheeks when some kids snickered at my dreaded nickname. I wished I had arms like Plastic Man so I could reach out and whack him for that. Instead I pretended I didn’t hear him and tried to sneak away. Of course, Bennie had a different plan, and before I had time to leave he wagged his chubby arms at me and shouted, “C’mon, Wart, it’s all right. You can play, too. Don’t be afraid. These guys are nice.”

Shoot. I was stuck. “Ha. I’m not afraid,” I said as I shuffled over to the group, pretending not to notice all the stares.

“We’re playin’ The Walking Dead, and I’m the zombie,” Bennie said. That explained all the moaning and staggering. “If I tag you, you’ll be a zombie like me.” He started up his act again, and the kids scattered in different directions, screaming. When he staggered toward me, I darted past him and joined the others running and hiding behind shrubs.

Bennie chased us as quickly as his flat feet could carry him. I knew he would be a lonely zombie if I didn’t help him. It had always been like that, ever since I could remember: me helping him and keeping him from getting hurt. I was just about to step out and let him tag me when someone tapped my shoulder.

“Quick, hide behind here,” said a girl, who ran behind some trees. I followed her and found some other kids were hiding there, too.

“Hi, Wart. I’m Maya. This is my brother, Taylor, and that’s Luke,” the girl whispered.

I picked at the bark on the tree and tried to act casual. “Actually, my name’s Warren. Only Bennie calls me that.”

“Well, that’s a relief. It’d be seriously unfortunate if that was your real name,” said Maya, giggling. The two boys sniggered.

“Bennie’s funny. Does he always call you that?” asked Taylor. My stomach muscles tightened and my mouth suddenly felt parched.

“He’s not supposed to call me that in public, but he forgets. It started when we were little.” Just then Bennie stomped past our hiding place and moaned some more. Again Taylor and Luke laughed like it was the funniest thing on earth, and again it felt like someone was squeezing my gut.

“What grade are you in?” Maya asked, taking no notice of them.

“Six.”

“Oh yeah? Me, too. Going to Rosemary Brown Elementary?”

I nodded just as the zombie tripped and fell. I heard him whimper in pain. I would have gone to help him, but Maya grabbed my arm. “Wait for a second,” she whispered. “There, you see, he’s all right. He’s getting up now. Sometimes little brothers just have to learn to manage on their own.” Maya laughed lightly as Bennie got up and stumbled after some kids, who darted around him like sparrows. “How old is Bennie?”

“Eleven,” I said, peeking through the branches. I hoped he’d catch at least one kid and turn him into a zombie.

“Eleven?” Maya looked confused. “Well, then, how old are you?”

“Eleven.” I glanced over at Taylor and Luke. They looked baffled, too. “But he said you were his big brother,” said Maya, now looking suspicious.

“Technically, I am his big brother … by four minutes.”

“No way!” declared Taylor. “Twins? That can’t be true. He’s so small and so weird —”

“No, no, no. You mean different,” Maya corrected. I shrugged, hoping they would let it drop. And they did, but it was an awkward silence. Finally, Maya said, “Well, he’s a neat kid, and look, he’s doing great.”

“Right. He hasn’t even tagged anyone,” I said. “I should go and help him.”

“Aww, he’s doing fine. And he sure looks like he’s having fun. So is everyone else.” She was right. Bennie did look happy.

“He sure has that creepy zombie act down pat,” said Taylor. “Hey, he should be a zombie for Halloween!” Ouch. And then it came, the question someone always asked. “So anyway, what’s your brother got?” Instantly my upper lip felt prickly from beads of sweat.

Maya swatted her brother on the arm. “Shut up, Taylor,” she said. “Sorry, Warren.”

Taylor sneered at her. “What? I’m just asking —”

“Never mind.” Maya cut him off.

“You’re not my mother, Maya. I just want to know what’s wrong with the kid.”

I tried to laugh it off and change the subject. “Wrong with Bennie? Well, for starters, he takes my stuff without asking. And calls me Wart in public, which is pretty embarrassing. And —”

“No, not like that,” Taylor blurted. “His face is weird and he acts different. Is he a retardo or something?”

Maya gasped and her cheeks turned beet red. “Just ignore him, Warren. That’s what I do.” She glared at him. “Sometimes I even pretend I don’t have a brother.”

It was too late, though. The question hung in the muggy summer air like the smell of dog poop stuck to someone’s shoe. Before I could say anything, Bennie staggered across the field trying to tag some kid who was running circles around him and laughing.

“Bennie, you run like a duck,” the boy teased. “Quack, quack, quack!”

That’s when I snapped. “It’s called Down syndrome, and yeah, maybe he’s slow, but he isn’t stupid! Not like some people, Taylor.” I stepped out from the trees and shouted, “Bennie, come on. It’s time to go. Mom needs our help with the unpacking.”

Bennie stopped running and let out a sigh of relief. “Good, ’cause I’m pooped.”

As we walked back to the house, I heard whispers and giggles. My fists clenched. Then someone yelled out, “See ya, Bennie. Bye, Wart.”

When we got to the end of our driveway, Bennie turned back and shouted, “See you guys later! And you better watch out, ’cause next time I’m gonna catch ya and eat your brains. You’ll see.” Then he chuckled and waved goodbye.

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Contributor notes

Gina McMurchy-Barber is the author of Free as a Bird, a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award, and the Peggy Henderson Adventure Series. Gina lives in Surrey, B.C.

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Editorial Reviews

Many kids will relate to The Jigsaw Puzzle King, an honest, laced with humour and fast paced story of Warren and his twin bother, Bennie, who has Down syndrome. The characters and feelings ring true.

— Frieda Wishinsky, author of Canadian Flyer Adventure series

Tender, poignant, and at times painful, The Jigsaw Puzzle King will tug at your heart as you struggle along with Warren while he navigates the fine line between fitting in and being the loyal brother he knows he is. A beautiful, engaging story about loving people exactly the way they are. 

— Shelley Hrdlitschka, author of Lost Boy

Portrays the real-life themes of diversity and perspectives with humour, excitement, sensitivity and warmth. Highly Recommended.

— CM Magazine

[Gina McMurchy-Barber] skillfully manages to tell a story about the serious theme of Down syndrome with both humour and tenderness ... 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.

— Ormsby Review

Full of fun, packed with surprises (some of them stinky), and bursting with love. The Jigsaw Puzzle King will break your heart, then fit it back together again in new and unexpected ways. 

— Tanya Lloyd Kyi, author of Mya's Strategy to Save the World
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About the Author

Gina McMurchy-Barber

Gina McMurchy-Barber is the author of Free as a Bird, a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award, and the Peggy Henderson Adventure Series. Gina lives in Surrey, B.C.

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