Book Review: Far From the Tree


Benway, Robin. Far From the Tree. Harper Teen, 2017.

One of the most fascinating aspects of teaching is having a set of siblings a few years apart. They might be extremely similar—same facial expressions, same voice, same work ethic or lack thereof. I’ve also experienced the complete opposite—siblings that look and act so differently that I have trouble believing they are even related.

This is something I meditated on as I read Robin Benway’s Far From the Tree. The connection between families, particularly siblings, is a significant thematic idea in Benway’s novel.

Sixteen-year-old Grace has been aware of her adoption her entire life, though she’s given it little thought. That changes when she falls pregnant, is abandoned by her boyfriend, and chooses adoption for her unborn daughter. Although she feels she has selected a wonderful adoptive family, Grace feels a tremendous amount of grief and guilt after giving birth. She decides to locate and meet her biological family, beginning with her siblings—an older brother, Joaquin, and a younger sister, Maya.

But Grace quickly learns that Maya and Joaquin have problems of their own. Although Maya lives with a well-to-do family, her parents are on the cusp of divorce and her mother is struggling with alcoholism. Joaquin has floated through the foster care system for the majority of his life, finally landing with a couple, Mark and Linda, who are willing to adopt him. However, prior experiences have burned Joaquin, and he is not certain he is worthy to be adopted. Will Grace, Maya, and Joaquin have a normal sibling relationship? Will Grace come to terms with placing her baby up for adoption? Can Grace convince Maya and Joaquin to help her locate their biological mother?

The narration continually shifts between Maya, Joaquin, and Grace, and each character has a unique voice and perspective. This book doesn’t shy away from tough topics—adoption, the foster care system, divorce, teen pregnancy, bullying, racism, and anger are all touched upon and portrayed realistically. There are also small symbols sprinkled throughout the novel that have major significance—the photographs that line Maya’s staircase, for instance. This book is quiet, but impactful.

I was slightly irked by the character of Maya, as her personality seemed to fluctuate throughout the novel. When Maya and Grace first meet, Maya is extremely aggressive toward Lauren, her adoptive sister, with little buildup or explanation as to why. Maya is also described as being both extremely talkative and guarded, personality attributes that seemed to clash with one another.

This book is sure to be a popular choice in a school or classroom library. Students who have experienced any facet of adoption or familial strife will relate to the characters a great deal. This novel could springboard great discussions about family. Is our family determined solely by blood relation? What can our relatives tell us about our past and our future? What does it take to be an effective parent? Is the love of siblings unconditional? Far From the Tree is an emotional ride, but its hopeful ending will stay with the reader long after they’ve finished the book.


Book Review: Little & Lion

little and lion cover

Colbert, Brandy. Little & Lion. Little Brown, 2017.

As a high school teacher and avid reader, I’ve become familiar with the continuously growing roster of popular YA authors. It’s rare—and therefore extremely exciting—for me to come across an unfamiliar author. While reading the YA anthology Summer Days and Summer Nights, I saw many names and writing styles I knew—Veronica Roth, Cassandra Clare, Lev Grossman. But my favorite story came from an author I’d never read: Brandy Colbert. I went to Amazon and quickly purchased her latest novel, Little & Lion.

Suzette is a proud member of a diverse, blended family: she’s close to her stepfather, Saul, and stepbrother Lionel. She and her mother even convert to Judaism, though, as an African-American, Suzette must deal with her share of insensitive questions. She and Lionel (nicknamed “Little” and “Lion” respectively) share a unique bond, one that is tested when Lion has a strange, violent outburst. Lion is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and while he struggles and tries a myriad of medications, Suzette’s parents worry that she is too preoccupied with her brother’s health. They send her away to boarding school in Massachusetts.

When Suzette returns home for the summer, many things have changed—her brother appears to be in better health, while she is reeling following an abrupt, messy breakup with her roommate, Iris. Suzette lands a part-time job at a florist where she feels a pull toward her tattooed, spunky co-worker, Rafaela. But when Lion meets and expresses an interest in Rafaela, Suzette feels conflicted. This is further complicated by a secret Lion shares with Suzette alone: he is shirking his medication. Will Suzette find the courage to tell their parents? Will Lion function without the assistance of his medication? Will Suzette stay with her family in LA or return to the boarding school in the Fall?

Little & Lion inspires the reader to think about family—how they come in many shapes and sizes, and how the family we choose often means more to us than a biological connection. It also highlights the helplessness a family member feels when someone they love struggles with mental illness. Suzette, too, is a fantastic protagonist. Her feelings of devotion and concern are often at odds with her feelings of jealousy and resentment, which makes her relatable and human.

I struggled with the characterization of Rafaela—I couldn’t decide if she was bold and unpredictable or just a troublemaker. Some of her actions seemed rash and unkind and caused me to dislike her almost immediately.

I could certainly see using passages from Little & Lion to springboard conversations about mental illness or blended families. The book would likely be a popular and relevant choice in a classroom library. I can’t wait to read more of Colbert’s work—her clear, honest writing style will be attractive to both teenage and adult readers.