I'm staring at the cover of this book and wondering what to say about it. The cover is awfully busy, in its overly geometric way - a giant factory looms over a little red brick schoolhouse, smokestacks rising into the gray clouds, from which descend feathers, like snow. Below the school, stairs descend into a darkness in which half-lidded yellow eyes lurk.
Also, the O's in the word "School" are eyes. And there's a... you know what? I'll quit with the cover. Except to point out the one enticing element of it, the one element that you should pay attention to and use as your barometer when you consider whether you need it for your kids, or your library.
If you're a fan of languages like I am, you will quickly realize that an unusual name like "Seita Parkkola" has to derive from a Finno-Ugric language. Finno-Ugric is a quirky and ancient subgroup of languages that includes Estonian, Hungarian, and Sámi, and which famously does not include Basque.
And I will try anything as unexpected as a teen novel from Finland.
So I did. And I was happy about it. For, like the Finnish school system and digital telephony, The School of Possibilities, a modern fairy tale that dances with horror and delight, is an extremely successful item.
Storm Steele, a twelve-year-old dreadlocked skater boy with divorced parents and a particularly unpleasant stepsister, has been kicked out of one too many schools. Luckily for him, his stepmother works at an experimental school that specializes in "incorrigible" children, and that school offers him one last chance to straighten up and fly right.
Ok, so immediately we know that something's wrong. Instead of offering Storm opportunities to talk about the emotional turmoil in his life that has probably led to his rule-breaking, his parents sign him over to an antiseptic, autocratic, rule-heavy institution that confiscates his skateboard. And we know what this ride is going to look like: How does Storm 1) get past all those rules, 2) get his skateboard back, and 3) teach his parents that he needs love and attention, not discipline and isolation?
But no. That's not how it goes. Scandinavians. They'll surprise you every time.
I cannot in all conscience give away any more of this plot. It is so consistently unexpected, and so full of shocking characters and descriptive gems, all I can say is read it for yourself. Seita Parkkola, herself a schoolteacher, invents a school that, in its efforts to control its student population, employs methods borrowed from the Nazis, the Cultural Revolution, Stalin, and George Orwell. All I could think was - boy, those Finns sure know their fascism. The School of Possibilities must be the exact opposite of all those free-thinking, high-performing Finnish schools.
The book appears to be marketed to middle grade readers. To this, I disagree. Although Storm is only twelve, the moments of psychological devastation in this book are I think a bit strong for younger people - and only mostly mitigated by the periods of ecstatic victory.
Scandihoovians. They've given us Abba, IKEA, and LEGO, Lisbet Salander and Eric the Vampire. We have a lot to thank them for.