by Steve Heron OAM
Maximus, middle-grade novel has sound psychological concepts underpinning the narrative and an informed social and emotional wellbeing context.
Maximus has been referred to as a book about bullying. It is interesting that the word ‘bully’ appears only once in the story when Mitch calls his dad a bully when he yells at his little sister Megan. And the word ‘bullying’ is only used twice. Once when Mitch is having a conversation with Ms A. (the Deputy) and refers to telling his teacher earlier in the year that Jason and Jack had been bullying him, and there was no amicable outcome. The second, when Ms A. refers to a list of misdemeanours where students can start with a clean slate after they have worked to restore relationships.
Maximus is not a story about bullying, although some bullying behaviour happens. It is a story about relationships that go wrong. It is a story about restoring those relationships. It is a story about understanding and building a culture of respect, turning negatives to positives and cultivating hope.
Mitch’s school is at an evolving stage in shaping their wellbeing context. They are a school transitioning from punitive measures relating to bullying, fighting and other misdemeanours to a school embracing Restorative Justice practices. This is evident when Mitch gets into some trouble after he connects his fist with Jason’s chin. At first the school goes to the old punitive fallback of suspension but then they work with the boys using restorative practices. They are satisfied with the outcome and reduce the boy’s ‘automatic’ suspension from two days to one. As a school, they still have a way to go before understanding and embracing Restorative Justice fully, but they are certainly heading in the right direction.
Because Mitch is going through a few personal battles, especially with his distancing relationship with his dad, he loses his social confidence (his mojo). Grief has a way of sucking power out of you when you are down. He is not at fault for the bullying behaviour aimed at him, but Mitch finds himself vulnerable to the world around him and becomes sensitive to what his friends and (almost friends) say to him. He gets equipped with some options to bullyproof himself based on the BUZ (Build Up Zone) Five Tactics for Bullyproofing and he hears from Andrew the school chaplain that you can’t change someone, but you can change the way you handle them. Mitch sense of self begins to restore when he encounters Maximus, a bedraggled magpie who wanders into Mitch’s backyard and into his heart. Mitch sees himself in the magpie, and as he restores the magpie to health, his own confidence returns through several things that occur in the story. One example is when Maddy says to him, ‘Just because someone calls you a loser, it doesn’t mean you are one.’
There are many everyday relationship difficulties in the story. In nearly all circumstances, the parties work toward restoring those relationships with some form of conflict resolution methods. Mitch has conflict with Ryan, his once good friend. Ryan’s integrity and honesty towards him puts Mitch on his back foot, but his stance becomes firm, allowing him to think about the way is coming across to Ryan.
Mitch has an awkward moment in his relationship with Maddy. Her candidness and loyalty help the two of them sort out what would otherwise have been a problematic boy/girl relationship thing.
While Mitch is focussing on the negative, he can only see (and feel) Jason’s bullying behaviour toward him. When Jason breaks his arm in a football match, Mitch is the first to visit him in hospital. This and other things that happen help Mitch to think more rationally, and his empathy towards Jason sprouts. He discovers what drives Jason’s behaviour and feels for him when he learns that Jason’s dad has run out on the family.
Emotions are strong in Mitch’s household. His dad is under stress because of something that happened at his FIFO work. Unfortunately, he brings that pent-up emotion home, and it affects, not only his relationship with Mitch but the whole family dynamics. It is not until Mitch explodes with his own emotion and Mitch’s mum sits down with dad and has a long conversation, that Mitch’s dad agrees he needs some help. He ends up seeing a counsellor, and this starts to turn things around. Mitch is dealing with some big feelings of his own, and through his relationship with Maximus, his self-determination and support from his mum and Maddy, and a conversation with Andrew, the school chaplain, he begins to overcome his emotional imbalance.
Mitch discovers the power of journaling. When he says ‘stuff sucks’, he decides to write a list of the things in his life that suck in a new journal, given to him by Andrew. The sheer release of this anger helps Mitch to get to a point where he can be more rational about his feelings and have better self-regulation.
There is a moment in the story where Mitch is concerned that his dad may resort to physical violence. Unfortunately, the emotional outbursts have already caused much duress for the family, and physical violence would have taken it to another level. Mitch did not want his dad to be a perpetrator of domestic violence. He could already see the effect it was having on himself and his little sister and his mother. When Mitch discovers his dad is seeking help, a tremendous load lifts as he sees glimpses of the dad he loves coming back.
Mitch’s family could be any household in our suburbs or towns. Very few people know what goes on in children’s homes regularly. Mitch’s family is a ‘good’ family, going through a rough patch. With the right support they manage to get through it. Mitch’s grandma has a special place in the family and has a supportive role, one step aside of the context. She also makes the most chocolicious brownies.
Grief is a big part of the story. Many people see grief as when someone dies, but grief is more than that. It is the potpourri of feelings one gets when one loses something they love. Since Mitch’s dad is stressed, Mitch loses his bond with his dad and all the things that go with that. It has affects his self-confidence, and he has losses his mojo. At one stage in the story Mitch is drawn to reflecting on his pop who had died four years earlier. Doing his Anzac project helps him reconnect with memories of his pop and in time brings him closer to his dad.
RESPECT FOR VETERANS
There is a healthy respect for veterans in the story as Mitch reminisces about his pop on previous Anzac Days. Mitch’s Anzac project and the projects of other students in his class bring special meaning and connection as the Anzac history is honoured.
Mitch’s love for Maximus grows, and they bond, but ultimately Mitch knows Maximus should be with his own. (Spoiler alert) When Maximus joins the charm of magpies, while Mitch is sad, he feels a strong sense of restoration and peace.
This is a tricky subject to handle in a middle-grade novel because these kinds of relationships can be so different depending on the characters. I have never liked the terminology ‘puppy love’ as I believe it demeans true feelings that two pre-adolescents have for each other. These feelings can be powerful. I remember my first crush and my first kiss. It was huge. I believe the story handles the intricacy of these relationships realistically and sensitively, acknowledging and validating this often-maligned part of a child’s life.
One of the reviews Maximus received commented on the refugee connection in the story: “I liked that the author acknowledged refugees in the book as well, by having a young Asian classmate of Mitch’s relate how her family was affected by war as well, and her experiences as a refugee. I almost think there are so many important issues the author tackles in this, that it might be a better read if some were saved for a second book.”
Mitch’s friend Ryan has a strong Aboriginal cultural pride, his integrity and respect for Noongar stories shine through. I intended for the story not to be a one or two-issue story. I wanted to embrace a myriad of issues that children encounter daily in their lives. There are so many other issues I could have included, but I had to save them for the second and third books. (Now completed, on the lookout for a publisher.)
The review below encapsulates the essence of what I attempted in the story. According to this reviewer, I reached that objective.
REVIEW FROM LOVE TO READ LOCAL
Who would ever be a pre-teen again? The inexplicable waves of emotions, confusing social situations, family discord is all awkward and frankly exhausting. As Mitch, our main character valiantly tries to navigate the pitfalls; it’s no wonder he seeks solace in the company of his backyard magpie mate, Maximus. Steve Heron faithfully recreates the experience of early adolescence in an identifiable Australian setting with a story rich in credible characters and events. Sometimes we read for entertainment and fun and sometimes to learn or find wise counsel, in Maximus, you’ll find it all.
Purchase your copy of Maximus at bookshops:
In stock at Paper Bird Bookshop Fremantle, Dymocks Subiaco, Dymocks Busselton, Barefoot Books Busselton and other stores. Or you can purchase through my website: www.steveheron.com
- Maximus is a tremendous choice for a class novel for years four to seven.
- Teacher notes and Australian Curriculum links are available.
- Steve Heron is available for school visits, workshops, library visits and more.