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Friday, November 14, 2014

Courage for Beginners, by Karen Harrington. Little, Brown and Company, Hachette. 2014. $19.00 ages 10 and up

"Here is a girl annoyed by a fat, well-fed, non-store-shopping tree rat chowing down near the backyard fence of her childhood home.

Stupid squirrel.
Stupid tree.
Stupid lack of snacks.
When you go four weeks without grocery shopping, you realize how much you took the store for granted."

It may feel simple to just go ahead and replace what you would like to eat. Just go to the grocery store. In Mysti's house, it is not at all simple. Life-changing events and secrets must be kept from everyone else. At the moment, they are mostly being kept by Mysti herself.

Mysti is another unique and thoroughly likable character. She has a spirited imagination and likes to think of herself living in Paris and enjoying its many wonders, while wandering through its streets on her own...and on her bike!  Her real world is much more complicated and scary.

In Mysti's world at the moment, she is pretty much on her own to deal with the fallout from her father's hospitalization. He's there because of a fall he took from a tree that ended with his hitting his head on the cement, and suffering a major concussion. The prognosis has improved and doctors are sure he will recover. They do not know when that will happen.

In the meantime, Mysti's mother has retreated further into her own agoraphobic world. To keep her mother's difficulties with the world from overwhelming her, Mysti has always used her imagination to create stories about the way they live:

"These are the characters in my book.
There is a person who paints and cooks and never
leaves the house.
A person with a job who gently tries to get everyone to
leave the house together.
A bratty little unformed person who  practices raising
her eyebrow as a hobby.
And a girl person who would just like everyone to
leave her alone by the window while she is trying to take
photos of a mysterious walker.
These people. They would make for an interesting

The story is forever interesting, often funny, and also painful. With her father unable to provide the support needed, it is up to Mysti to try to keep her mother, her younger sister and the household in check and running efficiently. At school, her best friend has abandoned her in an attempt to become a different person. Her spot at a new lunch table, with all those who don't fit in anywhere else, affords her the chance to meet Rama Khan. Rama is a breath of fresh air and she encourages Mysti to share her very personal story.

That story allows a sympathetic awareness of what it is to live a family life determined by the mental illness of her mother. So many things that readers will take for granted do not happen in Mysti's family. As she meets each new obstacle with a maturity beyond her years, she is able to laugh at and share some of the feelings that accompany her struggles to cope. In trying to keep their situation from Rama and from school officials, Mysti learns to meet the needs of family all by herself. She faces it all with bravery and grit, while entertaining us with her strong, believable voice and a quirky sense of humor.

"The first thing my non-animal brain does is some kind
of mental blame equation that adds up all the reasons this
is not my fault.
If Texas wasn't so hot, the school AC would not have
And then students wouldn't have to go home early.
Making the buses really disorganized.
And if the buses were disorganized, there wouldn't
be a long line of jerks with more insults than sense.
And insults make you walk away.
You wouldn't have to walk if your mom drove or dear
old Dad wasn't sick.
And Dad wouldn't be sick if not for the stupid dumb
old tree.
I line up this equation in my mind. The common
denominator of blazing heat and old tree is Mother
Nature. And since nature is created by God, I look to
the sky and begin to lay the ultimate blame heavenward.
Right as I am deciding between saying a prayer or shout-
ing an insult, I hear a voice call out to me:
  "Mysti, you are not lost. You are just confused." 

It is not the voice of God I hear. It is the voice of a girl with
a scarf, and a hand on her hip.
    Here is a girl who knows that animals help each other in
the wild."

You should get to know Mysti. She is quite special!

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