Writing an engaging story about a spelling bee could be a daunting task but Deborah Abela has done an excellent job in The Stupendously Spectacular Spelling Bee (Random House Australia). India Wimple lives in the country town of Yungabilla and is able to spell all the words on the televised Spelling Bee. Her family would love her to participate in the competition but she has a problem with nerves, as demonstrated by her mortifying performance in the school play when she had the lead role in Matilda.
Her father tells stories about Ingenious India and Brave Boo but real-life India feels nothing like her brilliant fictitious counterpart with her daring plans and exceptional thinking.
The characters, especially the members of India’s family and community, are warm and kind and Summer Millicent Ernestine Beauregard-Champion, India’s show-off rival at the Spelling Bee, has a reason for her nastiness, which India uncovers. Other well-integrated issues include the effects of drought on rural and small town dwellers, the effect of childhood illness on the whole family and the role of a live-in grandparent.
The book is perfectly paced: India learns to understand and deal with her fears and makes a new friend, Rajish; and the storyline has well crafted peaks, such as the way both the family and the community create practice opportunities for India and the increasingly high-pressured rounds of the competition, culminating in the final of the Stupendously Spectacular Spelling Bee at the Sydney Opera House. The foreshadowing about Boo’s asthma also ramps up the tension.
And the book is funny as well! India’s father is often paid for his handyman jobs in colourful hand-me-down clothes and Nana Flo brazenly appropriates free food. The town’s rendition of the Spelling Bee is unexpected and hilarious.
Teachers could no doubt adapt some of the book’s content into their classes in a fun, immersive way for children to learn interesting words, particularly by using the competition element along with some of the actual spelling words. Each chapter also begins with a spelling word that relates to India’s experiences (such as endeavour, perspicacious, trepidation, fortuitous, skulduggery), its meaning and how it’s used in a sentence.
Deb Abela has written quite a backlist of books for children such as Teresa: A New Australian and the ‘Max Remy Superspy’ and ‘Jasper Zammit’ series, but I think The Stupendously Spectacular Spelling Bee is her best yet.
This Australian novel for children will be a great Christmas present and holiday read for girls and boys.