12-year-old Lucy Callahan has been homeschooled since she got struck by lightning at age 8 and became a super math genius. She’s academically ready for college, but her grandmother, who is her guardian, is insisting that she spend a year in the seventh grade to help her social skills. Lucy resists, of course, but eventually makes friends: an assertive, gossipy girl named Windy and a quieter, insightful boy named Levi. Windy actively recruits Lucy from day 1, despite being labeled an outcast because of her OCD, and Levi is put into their community service project group, for which they decide to help a local animal shelter. Lucy’s grandmother also gets her an interview at rigorous high school boarding school a couple of hours away, reasoning that high school feels like a compromise between seventh grade and college. Lucy’s friend situation, and her love of a dog at the shelter, finally come to a head.
I was a little surprised at how easily Lucy made a friend, but Windy had her own background issues going on with her fragile friendship with the popular girl, which plays into her revealing Lucy’s math-genius secret. One thing I look for in middle grade novels is how realistic is the protagonist’s decision to keep information from their parents/teacher/friends and solve their problem independently. It can be hard to justify well, and Lucy’s justification makes perfect sense. I love that she feels more comfortable talking to Levi and telling him her secret than Windy, and how their friendships develop and are tested. I also especially love that Lucy decides in the end to stick out the year in middle school instead of transferring to the boarding school. And the sad, sad story of the dog she falls in love with at the shelter has a semi-happy ending that wraps up neatly. Satisfying!
Emma is about to start fifth grade at her local public school, which she has never attended before. She’s been homeschooled, as had her brother until recently. Emma misses her brother and laments how he’s changed, though they are clearly still close. On her first day of school, Emma is put in a group with two girls who she wants to befriend and Jack, an autistic boy, who she sort of wants to befriend and also sort of doesn’t. Emma is not put off by Jack’s unusual mannerisms and, though she would prefer to work with the two girls, she enjoys working with Jack when they devise a plan to force Emma and Jack to do their part alone. Emma’s internal conflict arises when she feels she has to treat Jack poorly in or attempt to get to know the other kids. She eventually figures out that she can both stick up for him and make new friends in a new school, which seems tragically idealistic and didn’t quite ring true to me.
Despite that, I really enjoyed this book. I had it as an audiobook over the long weekend here in the U.S. and zipped right through it on my road trip (as opposed to You Go First which I had to stop listening to because the reader’s voice was way too annoying when she was voicing the annoying girl). I read it at the request of my boss and we agreed that, as the parent of an autistic child, Lord seems to have found a groove there, but we are wary of parents-as-experts not necessarily being the best resource. Our basis for this is the Light it Up Blue autism awareness campaign, run by Autism Speaks, which has come under scrutiny for not including voices of actual autistic people. The critique is that it’s an organization made of parents and other people who have autistic people in their lives, but do not include autistic people in their leadership and, more than that, sometimes say hurtful things. In contrast, the Autism Self-Advocacy Network is just what it sounds like, and their tag line is “Nothing About Us Without Us.” Keeping in mind that sometimes even parents of autistic children can make missteps, the boss and I were wondering how an autistic person would review this book. Until that happens, I’ll rank it high, with caveats.