Letters from Johnny

Written by Wayne Ng
Review by G. J. Berger

In 1970, 11-year-old Johnny Wong lives in a Toronto tenement with his Chinese mother. Mother speaks little English and at times works two jobs, but drinks and gambles. Dad left years before and has not been back. Johnny’s fifth-grade teacher assigns the class a pen-pal project. The story plays out entirely in those letters, first to the intended pen pal student and then to Johnny’s hockey hero. A friendly hippie, who lives next to Mom and Johnny, gives Johnny a dictionary and a nickel for every word he looks up. Johnny’s spelling does improve.

The murder of a neighbor woman throws everything into turmoil. Another neighbor, the hippie, and even Mom become suspects. Police and child protective services swoop in. Suddenly Johnny’s unemployed father returns, along with a young girl who might be Johnny’s half-sister. The girl is pretty, instantly becomes popular at school, but steals matches and starts fires. The hippie vanishes but soon sneaks a meeting to ask Johnny to retrieve a small box hidden in Johnny’s flat. If Johnny refuses, the hippie will implicate Mom in the murder. These family tribulations play out against Free-Quebec kidnappers and killers who dominate the wider news.

Told entirely in Johnny’s voice, with phonetic spellings (“diplowmat”), incorrect punctuation, and strike-outs, the letters are riveting. They take us deep into Johnny’s humorous, feisty, always questioning 11-year-old head. The details of time and place nicely evoke the early Seventies and the Chinese immigrant culture. The simple cover, Johnny’s age, the tone of his letters, and the low page count suggest the genre as mid-grade to YA. But the tragic family saga, the murder, and resolution, coupled with Johnny’s often wise insights, make this an unusual cross-over that will appeal to anyone from eleven to adult.