Life has not been easy recently for 11-year-old Fred Berdit. Fred has been feeling pretty low since he came down for breakfast one morning to find his beloved dog, Casey, dead on the floor, his heart apparently having given out. (“I wanted to know why. The vet shrugged. ‘They just do sometimes,’ she said.”) He fights with his older sister, Izzy; his mom doesn’t laugh anymore; and he’s become so quiet and withdrawn that Lisa Wu at school has taken to calling him “Mouse.” As he walks home from school through the park one day, Fred accidentally bounces Casey’s old tennis ball through a sewer grate. He can see it, but how to get to it? After prying up the grate with a hockey stick, Fred climbs down and lets go of the ladder. And then his world turns upside down. Literally.
Fred falls into a parallel universe where everything is almost exactly the same as in his world – including another version of himself. But in this downside-up world, Fred’s double, Freddie, is happy, his mom laughs more, his sister isn’t such a pain, and most importantly, Casey is still alive. Once Fred and Freddie get over their initial shock at being (almost) duplicates, they begin hanging out, walking and playing with Casey together. Fred is thrilled to be reunited with his dog, but after a while, something begins to feel off. There are the dragons, for one thing. Yep, dragons. In this world, people and animals don’t die, they are taken away by dragons when it’s “their time.” Fred has difficulty swallowing this concept, though everyone, including Freddie, seems just fine with it. But there’s something else, too. Fred’s initial joy over his reunion with Casey fades, and suddenly he’s angry all the time, though he can’t figure out why.
The story might sound like a simple romp into metaphysical fantasy, but author Richard Scrimger is dealing with some pretty weighty issues. It’s not until quite late in the book that we learn Casey’s isn’t the only death Fred has had to deal with recently: his father was killed in a car accident a year earlier. Fred’s trips to a therapist, his mom’s ongoing depression, and his sister’s emotional distance are all part of their inability to put the death of Fred and Izzy’s dad behind them and move on. Is the parallel universe all in Fred’s mind? Perhaps, but when Izzy learns what’s been going on and insists Fred take her with him to find their dad in the other world, it no longer seems to matter. The story has moved beyond the scenario Scrimger initially set up into something deeper and more profound.
Themes of loss, family relationships, and the way we perceive those around us are woven throughout the story. But Scrimger uses a surprisingly light touch; though we know Fred is mourning the loss of his dog, the boy’s sadness is never overwhelming. When Fred realizes he’s blocked out all memory of his father, the recovery is presented as an adventure (remember those dragons?), in which Fred and Izzy are the heroes, rebuilding their bond even as they undertake their own emotional journeys.
Books about death aimed at young readers run the risk of being preachy or overly sentimental. What Scrimger does with Downside Up is present a story with just enough quirk and humour to balance the more serious issues. Whether a child has experienced the loss of a loved one or not, this book will resonate with its universal message of finding ways to cope with difficult situations.