MG – Dear Student

Swartz, Elly. Dear Student. Delacorte Press, 2022. 978-0-593-37412-2. $16.99. 293 p. Grades 6-8.

Starting middle school is difficult for most students, but for sixth-grader Autumn Blake, it’s a lonely, anxious time not only because her friend Prisha has moved to California but also because her father has decided to “seize the day” and grant his lifelong wish to help others by joining the Peace Corps in Ecuador. Now, Autumn, her mom, and her little sister, Pickles, have to move to the apartment above her mother’s veterinary practice, and Autumn has more responsibilities to help with her sister, their home, and the practice. Though she feels like a misfit at school, she responds to her father’s daily advice to challenge herself and applies for the position as the advice columnist for the school newspaper, The Daily Express. As she awaits the decision on the newspaper slot, Autumn is surprised by the attention from popular, confident classmate, Logan. Selected as the anonymous advice columnist, Autumn reveals that under her awkward and self-conscious exterior lies an insightful and wise counselor. She even winds up giving advice to Logan and learning about her new friend’s hidden insecurities and needs. Autumn also balances this friendship with Cooper, a newcomer to her small community, whom Logan says is weird. When she responds to a disturbing accusation about Beautiful You, a cosmetic business in her community that has provided jobs for many, including Cooper’s mother, her reply sparks controversy around suspected animal testing; and when word leaks out that Autumn is the one dispensing advice, both Logan and Cooper turn against her. To make matters worse, her fantasy about her dad returning home for her birthday fizzles. Ultimately, Autumn realizes she is strong enough to grab hold of her Fearless Fred –a nod to a family story–and summon the courage to do what is hard to make things right. The premise of the friendly advice columnist being the introverted character has been done in Lifetime movies, but Elly Schwarz’s middle school take on it is refreshing and unique. Hard to tell what race the characters are, but both Logan and Autumn are white; Autumn refers several times to her Jewish religion.

THOUGHTS: Give this book to the shy student, the one who travels under the radar whom you suspect has something valuable to say. This book may be a good springboard for Social Emotional Learning–after all, Autumn is providing advice and the situations in which she finds herself can be good What if? examples. What if a parent chooses to go away for a long time? What if you need to move because your family’s financial situation changes? What if you are given more responsibilities? What if you make presumptions about how you impress people and how other people appear to you? What if you need to take a stand about something you really believe in and a friend disagrees? What if a situation arises where you need to speak up? Autumn Blake, with her complicated feelings and struggle for confidence, is a character middle school students would like to meet.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – Fat Chance, Charlie Vega

Maldonado, Crystal. Fat Chance, Charlie Vega. Holiday House, 2021. 978-0-823-44717-6. 343 p. $18.99. Grades 7-12.

Fat Chance, Charlie Vega is an homage to every brown girl who has experienced fat shaming. The main character of Crystal Maldonado’s debut novel, sixteen-almost-seventeen Charlotte “Charlie” Vega struggles with self-acceptance. An unabashed nerd, the Connecticut teen excels at her studies, likes her after school job, and has a kind and loyal best friend, Amelia. On the down side, she still grieves for beloved Puerto Rican father, butts heads with her recently slimmed-down mother, and feels diminished next to the perfect Amelia. A striving idealist and aspiring writer, Charlie longs for the ever-allusive storybook romance. When popular, athletic Cal invites her to the homecoming dance, Charlie is on Cloud 9 and is humiliated when she discovers Cal expected her to deliver Amelia as his date. She finds a ready ear to share her troubles in her kind and understanding class and job mate, Brian Park, who is Korean-American. As her relationship with Brian develops and deepens, Charlie’s self esteem increases. She and Brian are sympatico; he is a thoughtful boyfriend and even his two moms like her. Bolstered with this newfound confidence, Charlie is able to feel secure about her appearance, despite her mother’s insistence on protein shakes and popularity. Talking (and making out) with Brian feels so good, Charlie neglects her bff who is also in a new relationship with a girl from the soccer team. In a rare argument, African American Amelia reveals Brian asked her out in the past. Charlie once again feels second best and takes steps to guarantee a miserable life and fulfill her belief that she just isn’t good enough. Through listening to the positive feedback from her supportive network of co-workers, family, and friends, Charlie comes to believe that she is deserving of love, no matter what her physical appearance. The casual, almost chummy, tone of the language, the inclusion of references to current celebrities and trends, and the relatable theme will make this novel a winner.

THOUGHTS: No matter what gender one identifies with, Fat Chance, Charlie Vega picks up the despair of rejection and invisibility and the thrill of feeling chosen and desired. Though skirting any graphic description of sex, Maldonado woos the teen reader with the building up of her feelings in the make out sessions with Brian. Charlie’s volatile relationship with her well-meaning but issue-ridden mother can be the script for many students dealing with a parent who mixes up wanting the best for one’s child and creating a safe, accepting space. In addition, Charlie’s devotion to writing and Brian’s interest in art make for interesting reading while the humor-infused narrative makes the serious theme smoother going down. Author Maldonado blends diverse gender roles and races seamlessly in an accessible book.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia