An engaging premise and realistic characters make this an appealing debut from Kuhn. Determined to win the chance to sing on their country music idol's television show, Ellen and Valery spend the summer before middle school collaborating on their entry for the Mama Marshall's First Annual Rising Star Contest. However, Ellen's dreams of stardom are interrupted by real life; at 11, she's starting to realize that life does not always go smoothly or as planned, and lately she spends more time arguing with Valery than singing. She also finds herself thinking about Valery's brother, Daryl, in a new way; meanwhile, her beloved older sister, Olive, is miserable over her break-up with a boyfriend. Kuhn adroitly parallels Ellen's struggle to develop her sense of self with Olive's endeavors to define her goals in life. Eventually both come to the conclusion that life is a journey that begins with one step, a notion Ellen's father sums up by saying of the Kiwanis barbecue that Ellen and Valery plan to perform in, ""It's not exactly Nashville. . . . But everyone's got to start somewhere."" In accurately depicting the inner turmoil, aspirations, and confusion that beset those on the brink of adolescence, Kuhn creates a lively and readable tale.