Sunday, February 3, 2008


Emma Jean Lazarus is someone that many of us, especially those of us who are teachers, know well. A seventh grader, she is, to put it mildly, way "smarter than the average bear." So much so that she has difficulty connecting with her seventh grade classmates and spends her days sitting on the sidelines observing them with a researcher's detached formality. Emma Jean doesn't appear unhappy, in fact, she seems quite comfortable in her world. She is friends with many teachers, and also with Mr. Johansen, the school custodian. She has a warm and caring mother and a pet parakeet named Henri. Emma Jean's life is further complicated by the fact that her father, a brilliant mathematician (and probably a lot like Emma Jean, in terms of his ability to connect to people) was killed in a traffic accident two years earlier.

Emma Jean's position as a detached observer is challenged one day when she walks into the bathroom and finds Colleen, a seventh grade classmate, crying because Laura Gilroy, one of the most popular girls in the class, has talked Colleen's best friend into taking Laura, and not Colleen, on a family skiing trip. Colleen, a genuinely nice kid, is devastated at her friend's betrayal.

Emma Jean is detached, but she is not uncaring. She consoles Colleen, then offers to help right the wrong that Laura has committed. Emma Jean uses her writing and computer skills to fabricate a letter to Laura. Colleen, ever the "good girl" knows nothing about the letter until after Laura has received it. This leads to an "interesting" chain of events, which climax when Emma Jean falls out of a tree while attempting to visit Colleen in her second story bedroom.

I know so many kids who might see themselves and find clarity or comfort in this book. I think, for starters, of the GT kids at my school, or of those kids who are just a little bit quirky. They will be fine when they get to real grown up life, where different people are allowed to be good at different things, but right now, in school, when fitting in is everything, life is hard on them. I think those kids might see themselves in Emma Jean.

I also think of kids who have lost a parent, either to death or divorce. Emma Jean and her mother are in the process of building a new life together, one that honors her dad, but also begins to explore new possibilities. That might also be really helpful to some kids.

As a writer, and a teacher of writing, I also can't wait to share Emma Jean's letters with kids. Emma Jean is quite the writer and does amazing things with correspondence. While most of her efforts are a little misguided, one can't help but admire her moxy. This is a gal who makes things happen with her writing.

Another fully satisfying read!

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