In a changing world, what can "normal" mean?
Lately, change has rocked Sylvan’s world—and not in a good way: family breakup, an embarrassing newspaper photo and now a new fifth-grade teacher. Sylvan tells himself he’s a “normal, average, everyday kid.” Sylvan’s classmate and co-narrator, Charity, has bigger changes to process: Her missionary dad’s abruptly returned the family to the States after five years in rural Kenya. Now he works as a house painter and won’t say grace. Charity’s classmates think she’s weird to shake hands with their teacher, but next to Brian, she is normal. Brian, on the autism spectrum (his depiction is realistic and low-key), makes loud noises in class, avoids eye contact and spends hours alone jumping on his trampoline. This well-told story captures a pivotal life experience: What we’ve assumed was permanent, bedrock reality can shift beneath us without warning. “Normal” changes. If it’s a tough lesson, it’s also liberating. Sylvan’s mom drags him with her to protest demonstrations (hence that embarrassing photo). That’s her normal—but is it Sylvan’s? Charity’s beliefs are her own, to keep or lose, whatever her dad believes.
Pre-adolescent angst—funny, perplexing humiliating—is perennially fertile ground for middle-grade fiction. Holmes shows us where it comes from and where it can take us if we let it. (Fiction. 8-12)