Tuesday, October 27, 2009

On My Christmas List

Photo compliments of BarnesandNoble.com

Emma Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree by Lauren Tarshis is going on my To-Buy list for my tween nieces. I originally checked it out of the library thinking it would be a good book for my 8 year old, but after reading it, I think it's a better fit for the 10-12 crowd.

Emma Jean Lazarus is highly intelligent and oddly disconnected from her peer group, which might be expected given her intelligence. She is happy to float along in her isolated sphere. It doesn't bother her that the other kids find her strange; she is secure in her identity. Then one day, she finds Colleen crying in the bathroom. Emma Jean is unsure what to do, and then Colleen appeals to her for help with her problem and Emma Jean has an epiphany. She suddenly feels compelled to help Colleen.

It's a testament to Emma Jean's disconnectedness that she doesn't realize Colleen's appeal is really more of a conversational cliche -- she doesn't really expect Emma Jean to help her. But Emma Jean picks up the gauntlet. From helping Colleen, she moves on to finding a wife for her mother's boarder, and to helping another classmate escape a teacher's persecution because of a misunderstanding.

As a character, Emma Jean is original and unexpected. For all her social isolation she is very secure in herself and this is in large part because of the relationship she has had with her parents. Her father is dead, killed in a car accident 2 years previously, but Emma Jean has vivid and beautiful memories of time spent with him and she is absolutely certain of his love for her. Her mother, too, is a warm and understanding soul, one who recognizes and appreciates Emma Jean's personality quirks -- they are, after all, the same quirks that drew her to Emma Jean's father. She is always affirming and is a touchstone for Emma Jean as she tries to make sense of her classmates' problems while also wrestling with the finality of her father's death.

Colleen is the perfect everygirl, very much a portrait of the typical middle schooler. She is tortured by self doubt, wracked with fears that she'll be exposed to the same kind of rejection that Emma Jean experiences and which she just knows she cannot survive with the same equanimity. And yet, pack follower that she is, Colleen is genuinely concerned for others and her kindness for Emma Jean raises her from being a two dimensional caricature to being a fully realized character.

Emma Jean's exploration of her feelings surrounding her father's death and her mother's journey toward dating again make this more appropriate for older kids, middle school and up. The book is very clean, without even the oh-so-prevalent OMGs that you might expect in a tween book. Emma Jean does engage in some deceptive behavior which ultimately doesn't get punished, so it might be worthwhile to talk that over with your child and point out that while she achieved her ends, her means were a little questionable. Colleen's behavior is worth talking about as well -- the fact that she does the right thing for the right reasons even though she is sure she will suffer for it is one of the most wonderful parts of the book.

This book is a great vocabulary builder. There were several words I knew would be a stretch for my nieces (who are 10 and 12) and a few that I thought they certainly wouldn't know: another reason why this book is for older kids.

Don't miss this one. It's out in paperback and it's truly a gem.

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