Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree

by Lauren Tarshis
Dial Books for Young Readers

I checked out some of the buzz about this book before I read it. (see below) Based on what I found, I knew I was in for a story with two distinct voices, a tight plot line, and a unique style. I also knew that Emma-Jean doesn't use contractions when she speaks, and that I might be tempted to compare the book to THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME, by Mark Haddon.

Everything I'd read was true.

Except I didn't think of Haddon's book, exactly. Rather, I thought of the phrase "spectrum disorder" when I tried to make sense of Emma-Jean.

There is, however, nothing disorderly about Emma-Jean. She is logical, scientific, distant from her peers, and very, very organized and clean. She is unlike Colleen, who is a fairly typical 7th grade girl: self-centered (but trying really hard not to be), obsessed with what others think of her (but trying really hard not to care), and way smarter and better than she ever gives herself credit for being. And Emma-Jean is practically the polar opposite of Laura, who is the alpha female of the seventh grade girls (popular, powerful, cheerleader). Along with these archetypal 7th grade girl characters, there are boys that range from tall, blond athlete Will to Brandon the bully/buffoon.

Almost as soon as I thought of the phrase "spectrum disorder," I realized that Lauren Tarshis had not so much told the story of one character who was vastly different than "normal," but rather, she had given us a set of characters in this book whose behaviors ranged in a spectrum from Emma-Jean on one end, to Laura on the other.

Tarshis shows us that no matter where a character is on the spectrum, he or she is not exempt from from the struggles of finding a way to fit in, finding a way to connect with others, and just plain finding a way to be one's true self. And no matter where the character is on the spectrum, Tarshis manages to show us some good in that person. (Even Laura. A little.)

My favorite character in this book is actually the janitor. Out of all the students and adults at the school, I think he is the one who understands Emma-Jean the best. He knows ALL of the kids the best -- all the variations on the spectrum of what constitutes middle school behavior. He takes care of Emma-Jean, and he "takes care" of Laura, both in very satisfying ways. He reminds me of our janitor, who, for some of the kids, is the most important (caring, accepting, non-judgemental) adult in the building.

I asked one of my 5th grade girls to read this book. She's a fabulous writer who has incredible voice in her writing. She really liked the way the author told the story from two points of view, and made each so distinctly different. I asked her if she knew any kids in our school that reminded her of Emma-Jean or Laura. I can think of some, but she thought that both of those characters were a bit extreme -- "creative" or "bossy" characters that you could find in books, but more over the top than any kids in real life. She could think of several girls in our class who are like Colleen, however.

I'd be curious to know how real the characters in this book are to readers of other ages. 7th grade was kind of a long time ago for me, but even so, I can remember characters in my class like all of the ones in this book...except Emma-Jean. As an adult, I have met/taught some "Emma-Jean"s. How about you? Do these characters all seem real to you, or are they book character stereotypes? Have your 7th graders read this book? What do they think? Does it ring true for them?

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Reviews at:
Buried in the Slush Pile (how a writer should read this book)
The Excelsior File (great plot summary)
Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
A Fuse #8 Production


  1. Anonymous2:07 PM

    I'd love to hear other seventh-graders' reactions . . . I enjoyed reading that. Thanks!

  2. Great review! You've made me want to pick it up.


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