A young boy gains an understanding of himself and acquires compassion for others through the study of aikido.
Middle-grader Riley experiences emotions “like a burst of electricity hitting a robot.” His mom called it “the Surge,” and she suffered from it, too. When Riley’s mom leaves the family to deal with her own mental health challenges, his Surge of anxiety increases, and after some prodding from his father, he chooses aikido as an outlet, hoping it might “make [him] invincible.” That hope seems dashed the moment he realizes getting a black belt also means getting smashed by the other kids. To make matters worse, on the first day of training he argues with the teacher, Sensei Rick, and insults Wafaa, a Muslim girl, for wearing her sport hijab. Though Riley soon recognizes he has “been a jerk,” he does not apologize to her. However, when Sensei Rick’s teacher, Kondo Sensei, offers a mini training camp at his lakeside cottage an hour outside the city, Riley gets an opportunity to learn that only forgiveness can lead to inner calm. The narrative informs unfamiliar readers a bit about aikido and Zen philosophy while addressing mental health with empathy. Descriptions of Riley’s panic attacks feel accurate without being overdone, and a scene in which Wafaa becomes exhausted from explaining the prejudice she faces is something many marginalized readers will understand. The book adheres to the white default.
An unexpected lesson that shows “learning to fall” is an important step in developing resilience. (glossary) (Fiction. 9-12)