MG – The Shape of Thunder

Warga, Jasmine. The Shape of Thunder. Balzar & Bray, 2021. 978-0-062-95667-5. $16.99. 275 p. Grades 5-8.

Cora Hamid and Quinn Macauley are next door neighbors and inseparable friends all their twelve years of life–until they are not. Quinn’s older brother, Parker, takes his father’s hunting guns to his high school one November morning and shoots Cora’s sister, Mabel, a teacher, another student, and himself. The two families’ approach to grief could not be more different. Abandoned as a baby by her mother (the reader never discovers why), Lebanese-American and Muslim Cora has the nurturing support of her biologist dad; thoughtful, maternal Gram; and the professional support of a trained therapist. Quinn’s family buries the issue. Told in alternating voices, the reticent and less academic Quinn has difficulty expressing her thoughts and guilty feelings. Her workaholic father is against any outside help to ease the family’s suffering, and her mother hides in the house cooking and baking. Longing to reconnect with Cora, Quinn delivers a box to her doorstep stuffed with articles about time travel and wormholes on Cora’s birthday. She knows Cora well enough to appeal to her scientific nature. Perhaps the two of them could find a wormhole and travel back in time to stop the tragedy of that fateful day. As the pair work through the logistics of approaching a huge tree in the forest for the site of their wormhole/time traveling, they each experience the pain of regret and the insistence on holding fast to the memory of a loved one. While Cora has made new friends on her Junior Quizbowl Team and excels in her studies, Quinn has felt shunned. She longs to be on the soccer team, but is too ashamed to try out. Her art gives her some pleasure, yet not even drawing can remove the heavy weight of a secret she knows about her brother, the possibility that she could have prevented the circumstances. After she confides in the school librarian her remorse, she resolves to confess this awful secret to Cora. Though the revelation breaks their renewed bond, Cora devotes more time to her plan to make the impossible possible. When she questions her father about time travel, she is encouraged and inspired by his answer. He tells her that her absent mother had a theory comparing the shape of time to the shape of thunder: “impossible to map” (p. 213). When both Cora and Quinn are coaxed by different people to attend the traditional Fall Festival at their middle school, the rumble of thunder pulls the two estranged girls to the woods to prove Cora’s theory. The hopeful resolution of the story, despite the sadness surrounding it, gives the reader relief. Quinn’s and Cora’s relationship see-saws throughout realistically. After all, Quinn reminds Cora of the unspeakable thing Parker did. Quinn’s strained home life with her parents who refuse any kind of self-reflection or examination of the devastating action of their son is painful.  Minor situations like the jealousy of Mia, another friend of Cora’s, toward Quinn; the snide remarks of Quinn’s former teammate and friend; the growing crush Cora has with her classmate, Owen (a Japanese-American character), will resonate genuinely with middle school readers. The Shape of Thunder is a tough read, but one that confirms that happiness can co-exist with grief, and friendships can be mended.

THOUGHTS: This novel is full of emotion and rich in language and characterization, but not so intense that a sensitive middle grade student would be put off. Cora is a thinker and an intellectual. Throughout the novel, students will find themselves entertained by the interesting facts Cora spouts (“…cows kill more people than sharks each year…”). The images Warga uses to describe different feelings are unique but spot on (the “fizziness” Cora feels in her tummy when talking to her crush, Owen, etc.). She also makes dialogue very interesting. Quinn has a hard time speaking; her brain freezes and she can’t say the words. When she finally gets angry enough to spill over her feelings to her buttoned up family, it is heartbreaking. The conversations between Cora and her father and grandmother also are authentic and tell the reader so much about the characters. What the reader must conjecture about are Parker’s reason for the shooting and the absence of Cora’s mother since her father seems to have no obvious vices. Ms. Euclid, the school librarian and art teacher, is a heroine for Quinn. This book should be issued with a box of tissues.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – The Castle School (for Troubled Girls)

Content warning: This book contains depictions of mental illness, including but not limited to addiction, anorexia, self-harm, and trichotillomania.

Moira (Moor-a, not Moy-ra) has been skipping school, meals, and leaving her apartment for hours at a time. Her parents stage an intervention where they share that they’re sending Moira to The Castle School, a school for girls going through a “rough patch” not a reform school. Though two bodyguard types look ready to spring into action should Moira bolt, she willingly packs her things and gets on a plane heading to a remote part of Maine. There she meets eleven other girls who like her are experiencing their own struggles, each unique and told in her own voice in a sporadic chapter throughout the novel. When asked why she’s at The Castle School, Moira reports it’s because she got a tattoo. She does not share that she lost her best friend. With a very regimented schedule which includes lights out and individual therapy sessions, Moira struggles to adjust at first. She has some time on her own, though, as her roommate Eleanor is staying in the infirmary. While reading by a secret flashlight, Moira hears music in the distance and notices that the padlock on her window’s security bars is broken. The next night Moira and Eleanor head out to investigate and discover a castle that seems a lot like theirs, only happier, warmer, and with twelve boys. The Castle Schools may not be what Moira thought. Moira notices that she feels more like herself than she has in a long time when she’s at the other Castle School (Castle South); it seems to have the same effect on Eleanor. What type of experiment is Dr. Prince conducting with two schools run so differently, and why – other than the fact that she’s a girl – is Moira at Castle North? Why does Dr. Prince’s son Randy live at Castle North instead of with the boys in Castle South? As Moira gets to know the girls and attends sessions with Dr. Prince, she struggles through her grief and begins to come to terms with why she’s at The Castle School.

THOUGHTS: Readers will root for Moira as she adjusts to her new life at The Castle School and works through her grief. As an adult reader, I felt like Moira’s semester ended a bit too tidy (though she does work through a lot). I’m interested to talk to a student reader about their thoughts of authenticity. Purchase for high school collections where character driven, mental health titles are popular.

Realistic Fiction          Maryalice Bond, South Middleton SD