Read’s debut, the first in a series centered on a New England middle school, is a sensitive, heartfelt account of a young girl’s journey toward mental health. Fifth-grader Sarah loves reading, crafts, playing with her friends, and mermaids, but while her interests are typical, her behavior is increasingly not. She begins to feel like her actions are out of her control —and when she enters middle school, she struggles with grades, friendships, and erratic behavior outbursts that she can’t explain. Sarah decides everyone would be better off if she were to leave, but after sharing her feelings with a homeroom teacher, she discovers a new path forward.
Read’s experience as an educator is reflected in her skillful depiction of Sarah’s middle school happenings—from the pressures of the cafeteria to the awkwardness of the “boy-girl thing,” she captures the essence of day-to-day student life. Though the narrative voice is more mature and formal than the average middle school student, Sarah expresses age-appropriate, authentic priorities and concerns. Some readers will wish for more details on Sarah’s everyday struggles, but the frustration, guilt, fear, and pain that these incidents cause her are described in rich detail.
Read captures these feelings most effectively in poems embedded throughout the story, resonant interludes that distill Sarah’s emotions while expressing her love for mermaids and the power and freedom they represent—a stark contrast to her own life. But alongside its poetry, the novel offers a down-to-earth look at the realities of experiencing mental illness at this age, as well as how important teachers, friends, and family are for children who are facing such challenges. Sarah’s story is both genuine and inspiring, and readers will root for her as she learns to recognize and harness her own power.
Takeaway: Middle school students and their parents will enjoy this novel’s empathetic, honest exploration of mental health.
Great for fans of: Christine Day’s The Sea in Winter, Lisa Thompson’s The Goldfish Boy, Jack Gantos’s Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key.
Production grades Cover: A Design and typography: A Illustrations: N/A Editing: A Marketing copy: A
As she enters the sixth grade, a girl spirals downward and searches for answers in this debut middle-grade novel.
With her fifth grade year ending, Sarah is looking forward to summer and her Massachusetts family’s annual trip to Cape Cod, although she’s worried about starting middle school in the fall. No matter how hard she tries, Sarah can’t seem to earn good grades. She is constantly getting dinged by her teachers and parents. They say she doesn’t make an effort or work well with others; she’s disruptive, distracted, and immature. Creativity has been her mainstay, but even that has been lessened by her art teacher’s criticism. She wishes she could be normal but acts out in ways that puzzle even her. At Girl Scout camp, for example, she wakes after a nighttime walk far from her tent, dazed and screaming. As sixth grade begins, the almost-friendless girl experiences fresh disasters, constantly disappointing her teachers and parents and becoming seriously depressed; she fantasizes about swimming away like a mermaid and disappearing from her life. When she reaches out to a teacher she trusts, Sarah at last receives professional help, a diagnosis, and a support system. Though she knows it won’t be fast or easy, she’s relieved to have more control. In her book, Read offers a realistic portrayal of mental illness as Sarah grapples painfully with trying to manage something she doesn’t understand. As the narrator, Sarah can become overly repetitive and maudlin; it’s understandable and does convey her stuck state of mind, but readers may find themselves getting impatient. Things pick up with Sarah’s diagnosis, bringing her experiences into focus. The novel provides clear, useful information about Sarah’s condition and its management, including ongoing help from a treatment team and her parents’ involvement.
An engaging and sympathetic exploration of a girl’s struggles with mental illness and recovery.