I am always looking for that quintessential middle school novel. You know, the one that isn’t too old or too babyish for my 6th graders. While plenty of my students love to read YA and are more than prepared for it, I also have many who just want a book about a kid like them. My students are fabulous at self-censoring and know when a book is just right for them. A few time this week I have had some of my girls put a book back on the shelf after a few pages saying, “This book is too old for me so I am going to try something else.”
Inevitably when I ask them what they are in the mood for they tell me “A book about a kid in middle school, going through regular middle school stuff. A main character like me.”
Kate Messner’s The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. is that book and I can’t wait to pass it on to my students!
Don’t misunderstand me- this isn’t some fluffy novel. Messner deals with some heavy subjects in the novel, but they are issues many of my students deal with on a daily basis.
Gianna is a cross-country runner, a gifted artist, and a free spirit. She doesn’t do very well with deadlines so when her science teacher gives the class a month to complete a leaf identification she procrastinates. When the two week deadline approaches and Gianna has very little done she learns that she won’t be able to run in the cross-country sectionals if the project isn’t completed and handed in by the end of the school day on the due date. Even worse, glittery mean girl Bianca will get to run in her place!
Gianna has the best of intentions. She means to finish the project on time but life keeps getting in the way. Her best friend Zig is starting to show interest in her as a little more than just a friend. Family obligations keep popping up left and right, like going to the Italian market in Montreal. Her father is a mortician, and she has to comfort a classmate who has just lost her grandmother. Calling hours are held at the house, causing even more of a distraction. Plus, Gianna’s mom is her exact opposite- organized, a health-nut, and sort of Type-A.
The story follows Gianna through one particularly tumultuous week in her life. While she should be working in her leaf project she is overwhelmed by her grandma Nonna’s forgetfulness. Her mother’s refusal to discuss Nonna’s forgetfulness puts a lot of pressure on Gianna, as she is particularly close to Nonna.
I loved this book! I think girls especially will connect with Gianna. She isn’t perfect but she is real. Her imperfections reminded me of a lot of the students I teach every year. She wants to do well in school but is easily distracted. However, she is so smart- her interpretation of Robert Frost’s Birches is brilliant and spot-on. But she doesn’t hand it in, because she thinks it’s not what the teacher wants to hear. (I was so frustrated by her at that point!)
What really hit home for me was Gianna’s relationship with Nonna. Nonna’s early symptoms of Alzheimer’s broke my heart. I’m not too proud to admit I cried more than once toward the end of the book. But too many of my students are dealing with similar issues and I am so happy to find a book that voices the whirlwind of emotions they are feeling.
And as an English teacher, I love the repeated references to Robert Frost’s poem, “Birches“. I especially love that the poem is not only referenced and quoted numerous times, but that it is also thoughtfully discussed throughout the book. What a great introduction to Frost this will serve as for many middle grade readers!
It’s obvious Messner deals with middle schoolers on a daily basis because her characterizations are spot-on. I highly recommend The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. to all classroom and school libraries. And attention teachers- this would make a fantastic read-aloud!
*Note- I have never met Kate Messner, but we are Twitter friends and I follow her blog. We have a lot in common as we both teach middle school Language Arts/English and I’ve always enjoyed her online writing.
*ARC received from publisher at BEA