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review: fiction

Vancouver Island resident, lifelong equestrian and former family therapist Susan Ketchen draws on her considerable knowledge base and her passions for Made That Way, the follow-up to her first young-adult novel, Born That Way. It's an engaging coming-of-age story that explores difference and personal growth through a variety of lenses.

For 14-year-old Sylvia, life is, in many ways, not so different from that of other teens. Her parents drive her a little crazy, she's interested in a boy and she faces bullying at school. However, despite many shared issues, she is very different from her peers: Sylvia has Turner's syndrome. Missing an X chromosome, Sylvia is the size of an eight-year-old and has not shown any signs of reaching puberty. Her struggles with the issues around this form the basis of the novel, but without being overbearing.

Horse mad, Sylvia takes lessons at a local stable. Though she is certain she's not ready for it, her grandpa has shipped her a horse, without including any information about the animal. Brooklyn, who bites the trailer driver on his arrival, is small, shaggy and has oddly large ears. He also appears to be lame. A small mark on his forehead convinces Sylvia that he is a unicorn who is missing his horn, a figure she knows from her lucid dreams.

Sylvia's dreams feature a grumpy and hornless unicorn, who, with sardonic and wry observations, assists her through various aspects of her life. He, like Sylvia and Brooklyn, is different from others of his kind: His lack of a horn is a source of embarrassment and anxiety for him. Much of Sylvia's development comes through processing she does in her dreams, and the exact nature of the unicorn, who is wise beyond Sylvia's level, remains unclear.

Ketchen has created a cast of quirky yet real characters who are easy to identify and empathize with. Filtered through Sylvia's perceptive observations, and directly influencing her, the supporting cast is fully fleshed and engrossing, from the dynamics between her workaholic mother and her ever-busy and distant father, to Sylvia's understanding and application of herd dynamics to those around her as learned from watching her riding coach. Ketchen demonstrates a clear understanding of the sometimes confused way young adults learn from and are impacted by the actions and interactions of those around them.

While engaging and thoughtful, Sylvia occasionally seems unrealistically naive and immature for a 14-year-old. Nuances of behaviour and concepts such as relationships with boys seem strangely foreign to her; it is difficult to believe that she has not picked up more knowledge from her peers and the media. That being said, she is a character who is easy to relate to, and her methods of dealing with what the world throws at her are endearing, amusing and intelligent.

While presented as a stand-alone novel (or more precisely a "stand-alone sequel"), it is clear that many events and much that has contributed to Sylvia's growth as a character occurred in Ketchen's first novel, and it is left to the reader to fill in the gaps, especially those surrounding specifics of Sylvia's condition. Furthermore, the open ending and unfinished storylines lead the reader to Ketchen's upcoming third book in the trilogy, Grows That Way. This isn't particularly problematic: Most YA readers will want to spend as much time as they can in Sylvia's world.

Cori Dusmann is an educator and writer living in Victoria.

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