A Certain October by Angela Johnson
Johnson continues to write powerful books in a short format. Here we meet Scotty, a teenage girl who thinks of herself as rather bland, like tofu. The people around her seem more vibrant and complex like her little brother who has autism and enjoys trains, being naked, and eating cookies. Her best friends too seem to be more interesting to Scotty. Then in October everything changes because of a train accident. Scotty’s little brother is injured severely and another boy is killed. Scotty feels responsible for both of them, though she barely knew the other boy. This is a story that takes the small details of life and then shows how a single event can tear through, changing life forever.
Johnson writes like a poet, using unique symbolism to make her points. Scotty sees herself as tofu, bland until someone else adds flavor. Readers though will immediately understand that that is how Scotty views herself, not how the she actually is. Instead Scotty is an intriguing mix of teen angst, intelligence, and a big heart.
Johnson writes her characters in real life. They all read as real people, not even the parents becoming stereotypical. The teen boys are just as human as the main character, treating the girls with respect and friendship. It’s a refreshing change to see male secondary characters who are more than a stereotype too. When Scotty is grieving, the power of family and friendship together is obvious.
With its dynamic cover and short length, this book is sure to be picked up by teen readers. Here they will find a strong heroine who is intensely and utterly real. Appropriate for ages 13-15.
Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster.
The Second Life of Abigail Walker by Frances O’Roark Dowell
Abby has always been on the outskirts of her group of friends, considered the fat one who could be teased endlessly about her weight. She has to be careful not to give her real opinion and to always toe the line set by the group leader. Privately, she considers them to be “medium girls” and nothing special, but they are her friends. As Abby starts to investigate the abandoned lot across from her house, she gets gently bitten by a fox. It is from that point on that she is no longer content to be a medium girl herself. Following the fox and then a dog, Abby discovers a creek she never knew was in her neighborhood and then a farm on the other side. A boy lives there with his grandmother and his father who is recovering from battle in Afghanistan. As their friendship grows, Abby gains self confidence and is able to give a lot back too.
This book had me from the very first page. Told from the point of view of the fox, the first short chapter invites readers to speaks to the power of story, the role of fabled characters in our lives, and moments when the real world and myths intertwine. It sets the stage perfectly for what is to come. This is a realistic story that has magic and myth moments. The writing is outstanding, bringing magic into our world through empty lots filled with weeds, foxes who live in urban settings, edges of suburbs, and newfound friends.
Abby is a great character. She is chubby and ridiculed for it by not only her friends but her parents. Yet she has a quiet strength, an underlying confidence, that allows her to withstand those opinions and grow into the person she really is. She is a wonderfully normal child, not the brightest, not the strongest, but one who is willing to see beyond the weeds to the flowers.
This is a radiant book that celebrates the quiet, the mythical, the connections that are too often missed in our rush. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Atheneum Books for Young Readers.