Ärkel 2019, 184 pp

Jaanus Vaiksoo’s Shoe #39 tells the story of 11-year-old Paul, who skips school for the first time in his life and tumbles headfirst into a string of adventures. The boy meets a local man named Artur and his daughter Minna, discovers his first love (a saleswoman named Jekaterina), and – most importantly – ducks into a shoe store to escape a pair of bullies. Inside the store, he notices a mysterious man who buys the exact same pair of size-39 leather shoes every day. Paul and Minna set off to solve the mystery.

Vaiksoo’s protagonist is a classic fifth grader who proves that even an avid learner can be cool. Otherwise Paul would have no friends at school, nor the slightest chance to become pals with a girl as terrific as Minna. Paul has an especially keen interest in mathematics, which ultimately helps solve the puzzle. True, he does fall victim to his classmates Sumo and Plum’s bullying as a consequence of his hobby, but he prevails thanks to attentive adults and his own courage.

Jaanus Vaiksoo. Photo by Alar Madisson.

Although Paul feels unsure of himself at first, his self-confidence grows over time with spunky, clever Minna, her open mind and carefree nature, by his side. Just as important, however, is Paul’s relationship with Minna’s father, who treats the boy like his own son in spite of their age gap. The two develop a sense of trust to the level that Paul takes no shame in asking Artur for help when the kids get into trouble. 

Even though Paul isn’t from a broken home, his parents don’t have much time for their son. Doubtless, this is one reason for the strong impression Minna and Artur’s close relationship has upon him. At a time when there is a great deal of literature depicting split families, the domestic warmth radiating from Shoe #39 is refreshing and reminds one of happier times.

Surprisingly, an element of fantasy is also wound into the otherwise realistic work. As he tries on different shoes at the store, Paul embarks on fantasies that reflect his dreams and hopes for becoming a man. For instance, wearing a pair of running shoes, he runs a daydream marathon and wins. Putting on boots, however, the boy celebrates a remarkably good catch while out fishing.

Vaiksoo’s Shoe #39 is a multi-layered book that includes excitement, escapades, and romance alike. The author’s respect for his target audience glows through every page with a tone that is light, heartfelt, and spiced with good-natured humor, resulting in an entertaining and thought-provoking literary companion for young readers.

Helena Koch works as the Director of Foreign Relations at the Estonian Children’s Literature Centre. She holds a master’s degree in European Literatures in the Humboldt University of Berlin.