Books in Brief: Jennifer Chan Isn’t Alone, I Kissed Shara Wheeler | Books
Jennifer Chan is not alone by Tae Keller; Random House, 267 pages ($17.99) Ages 8-12.
This beautifully written and moving coming-of-age novel by Newbery Medalist Tae Keller is dedicated to “the girl I was when I was twelve” and was inspired by her own life-changing experience of being savagely victimized. bullying in college.
The Jennifer Chan of the title is a Chinese-American girl who has just moved from Chicago to a small town in Florida after the death of her father from cancer. Her father encouraged her intense interest in extraterrestrials and she keeps journals of her research.
Keller chooses to tell the story from the perspective of one of the bullies, 12-year-old Mallory Moss, whose mother is half-Korean. Mallory, ‘a scared little girl who passed out on the Ferris wheels and turned bright red when the teacher called her’, recently became one of the most popular girls in school thanks to her new best friend Reagan. From Reagan, she learned, “You can control who you are by controlling how people see you,” by wearing the right clothes, by saying the right things, by knowing your place in the pecking order of popularity.
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When Jennifer and her mother move in across the street, Mallory is intrigued by Jennifer’s enthusiastic research to find out if life exists elsewhere in the universe, but is painfully aware that Jennifer will never fit in with her clique at the end. ‘school.
In the first chapter, the town is in turmoil with the news that Jennifer has run away. Mallory uses clues in Jennifer’s notebooks to try to find her and enlists her two smartest classmates in the cause. Keller deftly weaves the girls’ search for Jennifer with eloquent entries from Jennifer’s notebooks pondering the mysteries of the universe and with Mallory’s painful memories of the bullying campaign she participated in.
Keller, who won the Newbery Medal for ‘When You Trap a Tiger,’ in an author’s note, said she contacted her former bullies from her college days years later and found healing in not not asking “What makes a bully?” but rather “Who were you? Who did you want to be? Who did you become?”
I kissed Shara Wheeler by Casey McQuiston; Wednesday Books, 368 pages ($19.99) Ages 13-18.
When the school principal’s bright, beautiful, and perfect daughter goes missing days before graduation, Chloe Green — known at their private Christian high school in Alabama as “LA’s weird queer girl with two lesbian moms” — enlists Shara’s boyfriend and Shara’s neighbor to help find her in Casey McQuiston’s fiercely funny, smart, and romantic debut.
Shara Wheeler is her only competition for the class farewell speech, so acid-tongued Chloe – who narrates the novel – is determined to beat her at whatever game Shara plays by leaving a trail of pink envelopes with clues as to where she might be. Chloe especially wants to know why Shara kissed her in the faculty elevator at school just before she disappeared, a kiss that made her “forget a whole semester of French”.
Chloe arrived in Alabama at age 14 when her mothers moved (“out of the California sunset and into the buttocks of Alabama”) to care for her dying grandmother. She made the unlikely choice to enroll at Willowgrove Christian Academy for its strong AP offerings and well-funded theater program. The only person absent from her school, Chloe endures homophobia from classmates and staff and the school’s brand of Christianity – though not without scars – and flouts the rules just enough to annoy the powers that be. in place but not enough to endanger it. AMP. His friends are the children of the theatre; her quest to find Shara throws her in the company of classmates she would never have sought, quarterback Smith Parker, who is Shara’s boyfriend, and Rory Heron, a stoner who lives next door to Shara. But what game is Shara playing? And will Chloe torpedo her own valedictorian chances in her zeal to find out?
McQuiston deftly weaves together several plot threads in this electrifying novel, a perfect summer read. Chloe’s acerbic storytelling as she reflects on her long academic rivalry with Shara is hilarious. But it’s also a coming-of-age story: Only gradually does Chloe realize that her tough, self-protective outer shell has blinded her to the possibility of bonding with unlikely allies, about how people can surprise you.