Note on Blogger Interview and
Middle-Grade Books Round-Up, Part Two

h1 April 23rd, 2007 by jules

{Note: Sorry there’s no blogger interview today. Yes, we tend to feature those on Mondays. We promise to continue our ongoing discussion with The Blue Rose Girls as soon as possible — most likely, another day later this week — and, after that, with a lot more bloggers with whom we want to chat. For now, enjoy a book review — uh, “recommendation” or whatever it is we’re supposed to call them in the wake of the discussion Roger started. I say that with no snarkiness, by the way} . . .

Eisha and I began a Middle-Grade Books round-up last week (it’s here if you missed the scrotrageous fun we had writing it), and so here I am to do a Part Two of some more middle-graders I’ve read. I intended to write about four — yes, count them, four — titles in this post, but I started with the first title on my list and found myself writing, ahem, a bit more than I’d expected. So, I’ll continue with the other stack of middle-grade novels in a little while. For now, make way for The One. The Only. Emma-Jean Lazarus:

Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree
by Lauren Tarshis
Dial Books for Young Readers
March 2007
(library copy)

I just had to pick up a copy of Emma-Jean; my curiosity was piqued with all the blog buzz about the book (see here, here, here, and here). This — Lauren Tarshis’ first novel — could be a case study in children’s lit classes for the examination of voice used successfully in a novel — particularly, chapter one, exactly where heavy use of voice should reside as we meet our characters. The protagonist, Emma-Jean, has quite the distinctive style and manner of expression. I guess there are arguments goin’ around for her being autistic, but I don’t buy that. Now onwards and upwards then . . .

Middle-schooler Emma-Jean Lazarus doesn’t like messy, disorderly things like emotions and, quite frankly, friendship — except for with her mother, the doctoral student who is a boarder in their home, the school janitor, and her pet parrot (all believably-drawn secondary characters, I might add in approbation). She’s wicked smart and terribly aloof, a classic misfit. She makes it “her habit to keep herself separate, to observe from afar . . . She maintained a general policy of staying out of the messy lives of her fellow seventh graders.” She’d rather stand on the perimeter of everyone else’s illogical, irrational lives, thanks very much — not unlike a super sharp tween-aged social anthropologist at work:

When she was much younger, spending time with other children often left her feeling confused, as though she were visiting with creatures of a different species . . . Emma-Jean had observed her peers closely over the years. Her painstaking research had given her a much clearer understanding of their complex emotional lives and surprising sensitivities. With steady practice, and help from her father and mother, Emma-Jean had learned how to interact with her schoolmates in a manner that minimized confusion on all sides.

But one day she walks into the school bathroom to see one of her classmates weeping over the sink. Colleen is the utter antithesis of Emma-Jean: impressionable, sensitive, and enormously emotive. She wears her heart on her sleeve, no doubt about it (“Colleen was always thinking and worrying and obsessing about things. That she’d failed the social studies quiz or that her new jeans made her look huge or that her breath smelled like egg salad”). Emma-Jean takes it upon herself — but without notifying Colleen — to solve Colleen’s problems, which revolve around her very best friend dissing her for someone else, an issue over which your average tween will, indeed, stress. Since Emma-Jean observes her classmates so closely, she sees quite clearly that “{p}eople sometimes behaved unkindly toward one another, even at William Gladstone Middle School. Hurt feelings, bruised egos, broken promises, betrayed confidences – the list of emotional injuries her fellow seventh graders inflicted on one another was dismayingly long.” In Colleen’s investigative, analytical mind, it’s all quite simple: she’ll do as her late and brilliant mathematician father did — she’ll follow the lead of legendary French mathematician Jules Henri Poincare, who believed that even the most complex problems could be solved through a process of creative thinking.

Yes, “some irrational, emotional force had compelled her to enter the chaotic world of her peers, where the rules of logic did not apply.” So, here we go then. Just exactly how Emma-Jean attempts to solve Colleen’s problem I will leave for you to discover yourself. And let’s just say that it works so well — or seemingly so at first — that she tries the same technique in order to solve the problems of others. Here’s the moment in which she’s decided to help Colleen, standing there in the middle-school bathroom:

An unusual surge of energy came over Emma-Jean, very possibly a thrill, as she took a step toward Colleen. She had the feeling of walking through an invisible door, the door that had always seemed to separate her from her fellow seventh graders. Surprisingly, the door was wide open.

I love it.

There’s much humor in this novel (told from the alternating third-person perspectives of both Emma-Jean and Colleen), as Tarshis has absolutely and categorically nailed the day-to-day drama of your contemporary middle-school student, my favorite moment being a description of what Colleen loves most in the world: soft pastel pink, the color of her bedroom walls, not unlike “candy hearts and strawberry ice cream and the cutest little piglets.” When Colleen’s friend, Kaitlin, is trying to help Colleen determine why she suddenly has an enemy in Laura Gilroy, she says to Colleen, “Maybe she’s jealous of you because you’re so pretty.” Colleen’s response? She thinks to herself, that was a “really, really supportive thing to say even though it wasn’t true and Kaitlin knew it.”

But Tarshis has also nailed The Quirk that resides in an oddball like Emma-Jean. Emma-Jean’s emotional distance from her peers and her severely analytical mind, in particular, can be quite amusing at times; when Colleen’s tween archnemesis, the aforementioned Laura Gilroy (School Queen Bee/Mean Girl), tells Colleen that “heads are gonna roll” during a particularly impressive Drama Queen moment, Emma-Jean — who has overhead this — remarks to herself, “{a}s for Laura’s threat to decapitate the responsible party, Emma-Jean was confident she was exaggerating.” But what’s most impressive here is Tarshis’ ability to take the same emotional distance in Emma-Jean and also make her a sympathetic character to us as readers. Particularly moving is a big turning point for her character in the novel, the moment in which she realizes the gravity of her father’s absence: “{R}ight then it hit her, the most outlandish, illogical notion of all: that her father was gone from this world, and that Emma-Jean had been left behind to live without him.” And then there’s the moment that handsome fellow seventh-grader Will touches her on the shoulder: “Normally, Emma-Jean disliked being touched by people she didn’t know very well. However, Will Keller was gentle. The feeling of his hands on her shoulders was not unpleasant.” Aha, Emma-Jean is turning a bend here, and it was my pleasure as a reader to take the journey with her.

There are some moments that seem a bit far-fetched and verge on implausible, all having to do with Emma-Jean’s deception in her attempts to help others solve their dilemmas. But this is a minor complaint. Overall, I found the book to be a breath of fresh air in the middle-grade novel landscape; it was compelling as all get-out, and I was constantly cheering for Emma-Jean to truly engage herself in the world of her peers, untidy and unkempt as it is. It’s this very emotional journey that Emma-Jean takes that makes the book so gripping.

3 comments to “Note on Blogger Interview and
Middle-Grade Books Round-Up, Part Two”

  1. *Spoiler alert.*

    One of my favorite parts of the book is when Colleen takes back her apology. I think of those times when I said “Sorry” not because I had anything to be sorry about, but because I wanted people to forgive me… for things I didn’t need forgiveness! Go Colleen. I wish I’d had an Emma-Jean in my middle school years.

  2. […] did come across Seven Impossible Things for Breakfast’s fantastic (and much better) review of the book and finally found autism named.  But Jules says “I guess there are arguments […]

  3. LOL. Yeah.

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