Book Review: Far From the Tree

farfromthetree

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: Juniper Lemon’s Happiness Index

Juniper Lemon Cover

Israel, Julie. Juniper Lemon’s Happiness Index. Kathy Dawson Books, 2017.

I select books in many different ways. I heed recommendations from my co-workers and students, pay attention to the covers I see on my Instagram feed, and check out the new releases from authors I’ve enjoyed in the past.

Juniper Lemon’s Happiness Index is perhaps the first book I’ve selected based on its title alone. I was immediately curious—what kind of name was Juniper Lemon? What was a happiness index? I was excited to receive the book for Christmas so I could begin reading and find out.

Juniper, a high school junior, is grappling with life following the abrupt and tragic death of her older sister Camilla. There are holes everywhere Juniper looks: her parents are quiet shells of their former selves and teachers and adults are awkward and bumbling in her presence. Perhaps most devastating, Juniper’s former best friend, Lauren, has drifted away simply because she doesn’t know how to handle Juniper’s grief. Juniper carries on a tradition that Camilla instituted—a daily “happiness index”. On an index card, she writes the positives and negatives from that day, with an overall rating from one to ten. Since Camilla’s passing, most of these ratings have been dismal. But a discovery gives Juniper a renewed sense of purpose. She finds a handwritten break up letter from Camilla to a mysteriously addressed “YOU”. Juniper is puzzled—to her knowledge, Camilla wasn’t seeing anyone at the time of her death.

As Juniper attempts to untangle the mystery of the breakup letter, she also must begin her friend circle anew. More discoveries lead to her befriending the often-bullied Kody and the dreamy Angela. A new student, Nate, also strikes up a friendship, though Juniper struggles to understand his motives. Most surprising, Juniper finds herself enjoying the company of Brand, the resident school bad boy who spends most of his time in detention or vandalizing property. With the help of her new friends, will Juniper be able to find the “YOU” her sister was addressing? Will the resolution of this mystery alleviate her grief? Will she find a way to heal her family and keep Camilla’s memory alive?

I found this novel particularly poignant in its portrayal of grief. Anyone who has ever suffered a deep personal loss will likely agree that Juniper’s account is painfully accurate. The most heart-wrenching moments were unintentional—for example, a teacher starts to ask if Juniper is Camilla’s sister before remembering Camilla’s death and awkwardly stopping herself. The characterization of Juniper and Brand Sayers was particularly strong. Juniper is vulnerable, devastated, but darkly funny. Brand is perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the entire novel, a layered character who carries his own share of sadness.

In a largely perfect novel, I only wish that two of the characters—Nate and Morgan—were given detailed characterization as well. Nate is important, but his role in the book nearly diminishes as the story unfolds. And Morgan, the resident school bully, is thoroughly mean and flat. She even pokes fun at Camilla’s death, a taunt that is overheard by adults who do not intervene.

Overall, Juniper Lemon’s Happiness Index is well-written and gritty and sure to be loved by teenage readers. As silly as it may sound, I thought the book could perhaps aid students in journaling. I loved how Juniper kept track of each day and rated them accordingly. This could perhaps inspire students to create indexes of their own and write about the highlights and disappointments of their day-to-day life.