Due to a rare condition called cognadjivisibilitis, anything people say about 11-year-old Elyse appears on her arms and legs—part temporary tattoo, part eczema.
Good words soothe, while bad ones itch "more than a thousand mosquito bites." Her friend Jeg has always protected her from mean comments, but the pressure of a new clique draws Jeg away, leaving Elyse to flounder and fend for herself—as if starting middle school weren't hard enough already. Soon, rashes like PATHETIC and WORTHLESS break out: words Elyse thinks about herself. When mysterious notes challenge her to try out to lead the sixth-grade class trip, she reasons that winning will net her enough positive comments to cure the itch. But as she awkwardly makes new friends, chronicling her progress with (very careful) self-deprecating humor in short chapters and notes to her future self, she realizes, "You couldn't just read them; you had to feel them, too." The unsteady emotions of middle school are palpable in Cooper's debut, from trying on identities to believing moments that pass like a blush will last forever; even teachers learn to grow. CAV is both a gentle dig at anti-bullying platitudes—words can and do hurt—and a reminder that words can heal.
Elyse's struggles toward self-confidence will resonate with fans of R.J. Palacio's Wonder (2012) and all readers learning how to be comfortable in their own skins. (Fiction. 9-13)