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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Falling Over Sideways, written by Jordan Sonnenblick. Scholastic, 2016. $23.99 ages 10 and up

"I moved forward so I was next to Matthew, standing over our father's knees. I wanted to say something helpful or something brave. Something useful and mature. But nothing came. I stood and stood and stood there, but my lips wouldn't move. Mom stepped up from behind and put one arm around me and the other around Matthew. "It's all right, Claire Bear. Just say anything ... "

Ugh! Grade eight ... it's never easy. Claire knows that the very first day. It only gets worse. What can be worse than zits, mean girls, changing friendships, and boys? You would think that's all a girl can take.

In Claire's case, it is undeniably untrue. Our introduction to Claire is a bit of fun. She starts with her father's constant support and witty candor, and the father-daughter dance. Then, she flashbacks to one year earlier. She and her friends are having a sleepover for her birthday, and it looks like rain. Seven of her thirteen birthday parties have been spoiled by rain. Her brilliant, accomplished brother is bothered by the girls and the noise that is interrupting the sleep he needs to be ready for tomorrow's soccer training session. Can things get worse? Yes, they can and they do. The angst just increases when Claire learns that she is being held back in dance class, while her best friends move forward. It's just not fair!

When she expresses her anger and sadness about the dance class, her father makes his usual joke. Claire is far from impressed.

"I quit. I am not talking about this with you. You don't
understand what it's like to have to struggle. Every story you ever
tell about your childhood is about how you got the best
grades without trying, or how you were the best drummer in
the school. Well, I have to work really, really hard, Dad - and
it still doesn't do any good!"
"Honey, I've struggled."
"Well, maybe you need to struggle some more!"

Those words will come back to haunt her. It isn't long before a traumatic event changes the course of events for Claire's family. She and her father are at the dining room table when he suffers a stroke. Claire is the only one home, and must take charge. Her father's hospitalization and long recovery are heartbreaking, and life-changing. Her mother and brother step up to do the best they can to keep the family from falling apart. The trauma of being the only one there, and then seeing her father so changed is unbearable. Claire withdraws to her eighth grade self, worrying about those things that may seem inconsequential to many, but are of great importance to this young teen. It is her way of coping. Her brother is finally able to get through to her, and Claire makes the changes necessary to help with her father's recovery.

Claire's voice is so authentic it makes the reader feel present in every moment of the book. She is confused, honest, vulnerable, angry and eventually, hopeful. Mr. Sonnenblick's articulate depiction of a family in crisis and the process for recovery following a stroke is compelling and heartfelt. It impacts everyone, including everyone who reads it.

If you are not familiar with Jordan Sonnenblick's work, this is a great introduction. It will surely lead you to look for more ... Drums. Girls and Dangerous Pie (2014), Zen and the Art of Faking It (2010) among others, and the upcoming The Secret Sheriff of Sixth Grade (September, 2017).

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