In Dreger’s (Bad at Love, 2019, etc.) YA novel, a middle-school girl grapples with an anxiety disorder, a frenemy’s blackmail scheme, and her pastor mother’s expectations.
Thirteen-year-old Elinor “Rory” O’Leary, needs to cheerlead. Although she has a therapist and a few strategies that help her to deal with her generalized anxiety disorder, she believes that cheer routines work best at “calming my brain when it starts moving too fast.” But Rory’s mother, Britt, the pastor at Oak Bluffs Lutheran Church, wants her to prioritize her church activities, such as portraying Santa Lucia and singing a solo in an upcoming Advent service. It’s a highly stressful prospect for, but her mother says that if it’s too much to deal with, then maybe Rory should take a break from cheerleading. Later, Rory’s ex-friend Laura Robinson demands that she convince her 14-year-old brother, Mark, to ask Laura to a dance—or she’ll release embarrassing photos involving Rory, Hello Kitty underwear, and some epic puking. Rory deals with her problems, learns more about Laura’s motivations, and gets help from friends, such as Will Parker, the cheer squad’s only male member, and her therapist, Dr. Patel. Along the way, she comes to understand the importance of family and faith. Dreger appears to draw on aspects of her own life in this novel, and it shows in the realistic details—about overwhelming panic attacks, for example, and the difficulty of wearing a candle headdress. The characters ring true; Laura’s hostility is reasonably explained, and Rory’s believable voice combines humor, introspection, and the melodramatic, self-conscious emotions of an especially anxious teen. Although Rory is sometimes frustrated by her mother’s priorities, she doesn’t reject them; the teenager takes her faith seriously, and when she wonders, “How can I embrace God when it seems like he doesn’t have my back?,” many young seekers will relate. The plot is also well-structured, with Rory’s journey aligning appropriately with the weeks of Advent.
Thoughtful, humorous, and psychologically astute.