Saturday, February 10, 2007

Managing Middle School: Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree by Lauren Tarshis

In Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree, we meet a seventh-grade heroine who attempts to deal with the messy emotional morass of middle school with total rationality and detachment. Emma-Jean is a girl doesn't even allow the familiarity of contractions into her conversations with her classmates.

Despite her desire to observe middle school interaction from her solitary lunch table, however, Emma-Jean's basic goodness draws her into the crazy stew of adolescent social scheming when she encounters Colleen Pomerantz boo-hooing massively in the girl's room. Colleen is the exact opposite of Emma-Jean, a kind-hearted girl who takes everything with massive emotionality, and as Emma-Jean plods rationally into an attempt to solve Colleen's problem, she walks right into the swamp of adolescent mores.

Emma-Jean comes to recognize the irrationality and unpredictability of human feelings as her efforts to solve everyone's problems have unforeseen consequences. The rigid and solitary path through life which she has created to shield herself from grief and pain gives way to the richer struggle to accept human relationships with all of their surprises.

This is a rich, rewarding, funny, and moving story of one girl's transition through the "middle passage" of middle school. With this first novel, Lauren Tarshis hits one out of the ball park!

As I watched Emma-Jean study her classmates with dispassionate objectivity, I couldn't help remembering another heroine who tried a similar protocol, Harriet, in Louise Fitzhugh's 1960's classic, Harriet the Spy. Less good-hearted than Emma-Jean, but just as clinical, Harriet keeps her observations of her classmates safe in a secret notebook, until the day she loses it and her schoolmates discover her critical thoughts about them. Finding a place within life's absurdities without losing oneself therein is a common thread in both novels.

For the pragmatic early adolescent, nonfiction offers some help in making the transition. For late elementary students who need a primer on intermediate and middle school mores, here's a book which my granddaughter found helpful in calming the anxieties of entering that new scene: A Smart Girl's Guide to Starting Middle School, by Julie Williams and Angela Martini. For a book which goes beyond the girl scene and includes boys and (gulp!) some down-to-earth thoughts about sex, see Arlene Erlbach's The Middle School Survival Guide.

If you have a child nearing the "wonder years," (as in "I wonder how I'll survive all this!") any of the books above may help!

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