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Finding a Way to Fit In—Or Not

By Danielle Hartsfield
 | Feb 20, 2017

The need to belong somewhere and to be accepted by others is universal. All of us have faced the challenges of fitting in or will face them in the future. This week, we explore a variety of titles highlighting the theme of fitting in and finding a place to belong.

Ages 4–8

Leaping Lemmings! John Briggs. Ill. Nicola Slater. 2016. Sterling.

leaping lemmingsThe adage “If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you?” comes to life in this story of Larry, a lemming who doesn’t fit in with other lemmings. He eats pizza with hot sauce and wears hula skirts and top hats when he pleases. He tries fitting in with seals, puffins, and polar bears, but he doesn’t belong with them, either. When Larry returns home, he is horrified to see lemmings about to jump off a cliff! Larry’s quick actions save the lemmings from a terrible fate and make him a hero. Themes of thinking for oneself and bucking conformity are presented in a whimsical and humorous way. The illustrations feature shades of blue and green, fitting the story’s polar setting, and the use of gold as an accent color matches Larry’s sunny outlook. Short, rhythmic sentences make this book a perfect read-aloud.

North, South, East, West. Margaret Wise Brown. Ill. Greg Pizzoli. 2017. Harper/HarperCollins.

north south east westIn this previously unpublished story from the celebrated Margaret Wise Brown, the time has come for a little bird to make her own way from her mother’s nest. She travels to the north, south, and west, yet none of these places feels quite right. But when she flies back home to the east, the little bird realizes that this is where she has belonged all along. She builds a nest and starts a family of her own, and it isn’t long before her baby birds wonder which direction they should fly. The story has a quiet, calm tone, making it well suited for bedtime reading and offering a reassuring message that one will always belong at home. It can also be enjoyed on another level by young adults leaving home for the first time. The illustrations by Geisel Award winner Greg Pizzoli incorporate pastels and warm tones that add to the story’s soothing qualities.

Ages 9–11

Confessions From the Principal’s Kid. Robin Mellom. 2017. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

conferssions from the principal's kidFifth grader Allie doesn’t know where she fits in. During the school day, she feels alone and friendless. After all, no one wants to hang out with the principal’s daughter, especially one with a reputation for snitching—and worse, her ex–best friend, Chloe, won’t speak to her. But after school, Allie is an insider, a friend to the staff and a member of the Afters, a secret club for teachers’ kids. Allie wants nothing more than to feel like she belongs in both worlds. When she has the chance to rekindle her friendship with Chloe, Allie risks betraying the Afters and must make a choice of where she wants to belong. The plot is simplistic and predictable, yet it has a lighthearted, engaging tone. Allie is a realistic, immediately likable character with a strong voice. This story will resonate with teachers’ children and anyone who has ever wondered what really happens after school is dismissed.

Forever, or a Long, Long Time. Caela Carter. 2017. HarperCollins.

forever or a long long timeFlora and her brother, Julian, have never known where they belong. Shuffled from foster home to foster home for as long as she can remember, Flora wonders if she and Julian were born or if they simply just appeared one day. After two years of living with Person (her secret nickname for her adoptive mom), the trauma of Flora’s early years still haunts her. Her words stick in her “lung filter” and come out wrong when she speaks. She sabotages her chances of passing fourth grade and constantly worries whether she will be a good big sister to the baby growing inside Person. Flora and Julian must confront the painful realities of their troubled past before they can truly understand what it means to belong to a family forever. The plot is sometimes slow-moving, but the emphasis on Flora’s worries and fears makes it a good choice for exploring the inner lives and motivations of individuals. Readers will appreciate this story’s gritty realism and melancholy beauty.

Let’s Pretend We Never Met. Melissa Walker. 2017. Harper/HarperCollins.

Let's pretend we never metMattie is distraught when her parents move their family from North Carolina to Philadelphia in the middle of sixth grade. It means leaving behind her best friends, Lilly and Jo, and the only home she has ever known. Mattie worries about fitting in at her new school and hopes she will become just a little bit popular. When Mattie meets Agnes, the girl next door, who happens to be in Mattie’s class, things begin looking up. Although Agnes is odd and kind of immature for a sixth grader, she hatches some fun ideas. But when winter break is over and Mattie starts at her new school, she realizes the other kids think Agnes is a freak. Mattie fears their relationship will jeopardize new friendships, especially with Finn, a cute boy who seems to like her. Caught between her friendships with Agnes and more popular students, Mattie must decide where her loyalties lie. In this fast-paced story, Mattie’s problems are realistic, and her decisions may be instructive for young people navigating the complexities of the middle school social scene.

Ages 12–14

In a Perfect World. Trish Doller. 2017. Simon Pulse/Simon & Schuster.

in a perfect worldJust as Caroline is poised to become captain of the soccer team and start her first job at Cedar Point, an amusement park, her mother lands a once-in-a-lifetime career opportunity and moves the family to Egypt. Living in an apartment building overlooking the Nile and the bustling streets of Cairo is nothing at all like Caroline’s life back in small-town Ohio, and she wonders if Egypt will ever feel like home. Things begin to change for Caroline when she meets Adam Elhadad, a handsome Muslim boy hired to drive her family around Cairo. As Caroline and Adam’s hesitant friendship blossoms into romance, Caroline must confront the sharp differences between Adam’s culture and her own and decide whether their relationship is worth the disapproval of his family, friends, and Cairo society, especially as reports of violence against foreigners in the Middle East pepper the daily news. The story demonstrates the differences between Adam’s culture and religion and Caroline’s identity as a Catholic from America’s heartland, but it also highlights common human values and the possibility of forming genuine, lasting friendships across cultural boundaries. Readers will enjoy the tenderness of Caroline and Adam’s romance and may learn a thing or two about Egyptian history from the history-rich Cairo setting.

Ages 15+

Blood Family. Anne Fine. 2017. Simon & Schuster.

blood familyUntil Eddie is discovered at age 7, much of his childhood is spent locked in a room where he is forced to witness the abuse of his mother at the hands of her partner, Harris. Eddie is taken to a loving foster family and later adopted by a well-to-do couple. Although he seems remarkably well-adjusted, Eddie often feels like an outsider and is picked on by other children. The adults in his life wonder if the trauma of his past will catch up with him, and Eddie’s turning point occurs when he is a teenager and learns that Harris is his biological father. Eddie begins to fear he will become a monster like Harris, and his fear spirals out of control as he turns to drugs and alcohol and destroys his relationships with the people who love him. Not until Eddie hits rock bottom does he realize that he—not his blood family—is in control of his choices. Eddie’s early circumstances will pull at the reader’s emotions, evoking empathy and outrage. At times, the motivations of characters are difficult to discern, yet readers may enjoy piecing together inferences from facts shared by multiple, alternating narrators. The story is dark, but the theme of finding strength in oneself offers a hopeful message.

City of Saints & Thieves. Natalie C. Anderson. 2017. Putnam/Penguin.

city of saints and thievesTina, a self-described thief and member of the notorious Goondas gang, doesn’t belong to anyone but herself. After her mother was murdered, Tina lived alone on the streets, nursing a grudge against Mr. Greyhill, her mother’s former employer and one of the richest, most corrupt businessmen in the Kenyan city she calls home. When Tina and the Goondas hatch a plan to steal data from Mr. Greyhill’s hard drive, Tina can’t wait. She has long suspected Mr. Greyhill of murdering her mother, leaving her orphaned and separated from her beloved sister, Kiki. But on the night of the burglary, inside the seemingly empty Greyhill mansion, Tina’s plan is foiled by Michael, Mr. Greyhill’s son and her estranged childhood friend. Tina and Michael cut a deal: She will return the data if he helps her prove his father murdered her mother. Soon Tina and Michael, along with Tina’s business partner Boyboy, embark on a dangerous journey taking them deep into war-ravaged Congo. As Tina, Michael, and Boyboy uncover the dark secrets leading up to the murder, the loyalty of her friends and unexpected help from a figure in her mother’s past teach Tina what it means to be loved and to belong. Riveting, action-packed, and with a touch of romance, this story will hold the reader’s attention until the final page.

Noteworthy. Riley Redgate. 2017. Amulet/Abrams.

noteworthyJordan begins her junior year at the prestigious, hypercompetitive Kensington-Blaine Academy for the Performing Arts while still reeling from an unexpected breakup. To add to her troubles, she isn’t cast in the school musical yet again, and money and health problems plague her family back home in San Francisco. When a spot opens in the Sharpshooters, Kensington’s most-lauded a cappella group, Jordan sees a chance for redemption. But the Sharpshooters are an all-male group. Undeterred, Jordan dresses in drag and auditions. No one is more surprised than Jordan when the Sharpshooters select her as a tenor. Now she must be one person belonging to two worlds: Jordan Sun to her classmates and Julian Zhang to the Sharpshooters. When the Sharpshooters have the chance to win a spot on an international, career-changing tour, Jordan becomes even more desperate to keep her identity a secret. Her problems catch up with her and threaten her future at Kensington just when triumph is within her reach. Although copious descriptions of the setting occasionally slow down the pace, Jordan is a dynamic and believable character. An enjoyable read for fans of Glee and Pitch Perfect, the story is thought-provoking in its examination of the fluidity of gender boundaries and identities.

Danielle Hartsfield is an assistant professor in the Teacher Education Department at the University of North Georgia in Oakwood.

These reviews are submitted by members of the International Literacy Association's Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG) and are published weekly on Literacy Daily.

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