Alternating chapters tell the story of two teens who meet through their high school’s Best Buddies program, which pairs cognitively normative students with those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Madeline, a 14-year-old freshman, still copes with the effects of a traumatic brain injury she suffered falling off her bike six years before. Her Best Buddy, Justin, a senior, is dealing with his mother’s severe depression following the death of his autistic younger sister from anorexia. Madeline persuades Justin to accompany her to the ranch where she works with miniature therapy horses; Justin gets his mother to come along. Meanwhile Becky, Maddie’s twin, has started sneaking out with new goth friends. That’s a lot of melodrama for a brief novel, but what’s worse is the subtle thread of ableism running through the book. In the sections narrated by Maddie, her literary voice sounds neurotypical, but her spoken voice and actions are slow and incoherent. “We get called a lot of names,” she tells readers, “losers, dummies, brain-deads.” Meanwhile, Justin’s mother refuses therapy and medication (it makes her “dopey”), but she substantially recovers when Justin takes her to the horses—dangerously stereotyping antidepressants and making Justin the savior. The IDD members of the Best Buddies club are all identified by their disabilities alone, while the normative members run the show.
Well-meaning but problematic. (Fiction. 12-14)