Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Cost Of Becoming

When you look at the definition of perfect the one thing constant in all the synonyms is there is no room for error.  To be perfect is to be flawless, the ideal, exemplary, the best and the ultimate.  To be fair, depending on the individual, the interpretation of each of these may be measured differently based on that person's perceptions.  What is perfect for one may not be perfect for another.

Perfection in one particular area can be a life goal.  Perfection can be a certain moment.  For some perfection is a way at looking at everything on any given day, every single day.  Finding Perfect (Farrar Straus Giroux, October 18, 2016), debut novel written by Elly Swartz, follows twelve-year-old Molly as her beliefs in what makes perfection and the results of striving for perfection shift dramatically.

blue pixie and the
siamese fighting fish

My cowboy boots scuff the wooden floor as I walk onto the stage, and for the next ninety seconds I won't think of anything but the rhythm and sound of each syllable in my poem.  Today is Round One of Lakeville Middle School's Poetry Slam Contest.

Molly has a plan, to win the Lakeville Middle School's Poetry Slam Contest, to bring her mom home earlier than the three hundred, sixty-five days she said she will be away.  (Her mother has left the States to keep her job by working and living in Canada.)  Molly also avoids odd numbers, loves even numbers, aligns her glass animal collection on her dresser by using a ruler, abhors dirt and craves cleanliness.

Her dad is constantly wrapped up in his own work with deadlines, conference calls and meetings.  Her older sister, Kate, a freshman in high school, is convinced their mom is not coming home at all; this job in Toronto is merely an extension of their parent's six-month separation.  Ian, her younger brother, a kindergarten student, can hardly sleep at night from the loss of his mother's presence.  Molly believes it's now her sole responsibility to keep Ian safe from harm and healthy.

Hannah, a nearby neighbor and Molly's life-long friend, knows Molly better than anyone else, offering her support.  Their bond is unshakable.  Bridget another of Molly's friends is more focused on herself and a decidedly unhealthy preoccupation with obituaries.  Both of these girls care for Molly in their own way but they don't necessarily like each other.

Chapter by chapter we step into the world of Molly's mind, how she views every aspect of her day.  Her habits increase as the stress of her mother's absence, her plan and the care of Ian weigh on her heavily.  It is becoming progressively harder for her to present perfect Molly to the world and keep obsessive-compulsive Molly hidden.  She is inwardly frantic about what is happening to her.  She thinks she is truly crazy.  She feels trapped, backed into a corner of herself she wishes is different.  She wants her old self back.

With the passing of each day, she strives to focus on her plan.  Another habit comes charging into her mind, counting by twos.  Her poem during Round Two of the Poetry Slam Contest is one more attempt to share her rising fear at her mental state.  One lie builds on another lie, day after day.  Secrets are discovered and secrets are revealed.  With the ending of one chapter and the beginning of another, the tension builds silently screaming for release.  Numbers erupt.  Exposed.  Nothing will be the same.

One of the first things you realize when reading this novel by Elly Swartz is the exquisite care taken to include a multitude of small but equally important moments in Molly's day to day world.  We are intimately aware of the changes the entire family, but especially Molly, endures with the void left by her mother's absence.  Descriptions of how the kitchen looks and smells when her mom is home compared to now are vivid and heartbreaking.  We are beside Molly when she sits in her mother's now empty closet to clear her mind.

I loved my tenth birthday.  Everything was perfect if you ignored the brownish-green swamp juice we had with my cake.  I'd just turned ten, our whole house smelled like chocolate, and Mom and Dad made me a birthday scavenger hunt.  That was long before their official temporary separation that started just six months before Mom fled to Toronto and our kitchen smelled like takeout all the time.

I crack open the doors and slide onto the honey-colored wood floor.  There are no clothes, no shoes, not even a belt left.  I set my special sea glass down on the bare wood.  Mom and I found it together on Chapin Beach when I was six.  Two pieces had washed up on the sand next to each other.  One turquoise and one gold.  Mom kept the gold and I have the turquoise.  It's always with me, so I never have to be without it and her.

Not a beat is missed from one chapter to the next, minutes flowing into other minutes.  This increases our involvement with Molly and the other characters.  Chapter titles hint at the events to come.  We get a very real sense of the growing concern Molly feels inside through the private poems she writes in her journal.  We are her but also we are separate in wanting to reach out to her, to help her.

The situations each of the characters find themselves in are very real; a parent who is not sure of her way or place, single parenthood, a new high school student with an older boyfriend, a young child feeling afloat in a miserable sea, missing his mother, a girl whose father lost his job and changes loom in her future and another friend who has lost a parent through death.  Their lives are pieced together with Molly's in a truthful tribute to the ups and downs life delivers.  We understand this through the narrative, Molly's thoughts and dialogue.  When Molly's state of mind hangs bright and clear like a Fourth of July firework blooming outward, each person reacts completely as we would expect.  The meticulous and powerful results bring hope...to everyone.  Here are several more passages.

It was the start of last summer and we spent two hours making lemonade and waiting in the hot sun for the customers who never came.  I washed my hands forty-four times that day.  I don't know what was weirder:  that I washed my hands so many times or that I counted.  I remember standing at the sink in Hannah's kitchen.

It takes us just five more minutes to get to the bench outside of school.  Hannah looks all serious.  "I need to tell you something.  It's big.  Sit with me."
I stare at the bench.  Peeling paint.  Dried mustard.  Dirt.  I stuff my hands into my pockets and try a cleansing yoga breath, but my Zen moment sticks in my throat.  "Um. I'm good here."
Hannah dumps her backpack next to her and I silently pray it doesn't land in the mustard.  She leans in to tell me her news when Bridget shows up.

We get off at the next stop and I check my phone.  Nothing from Mom.  I know she's probably selling her Beet-Kale-Pumpkin blend someplace where there's no reception, but I get a tug of worry that she's forgotten about me.  I tuck my fear into my back right pocket.  Mom says that's what you do with worries that you can't get rid of and can't control.

When I read Finding Perfect written by Elly Swartz the first time, I was on high alert monitoring the increase in a reaction my puppy was experiencing due to vaccines.  Throughout the wee hours of the morning, while there was still a part of me watching her, I firmly stepped into Molly's life; drawn there by the writing skills and research conducted by Elly Swartz.  I was crying out for people to help her, to notice her beyond her neat-and-tidy actions.  Most of all I cared for her as if she is a flesh-and-blood person.  This middle grade debut novel has my highest recommendation.  Everyone needs to read this...more than once.  Trust me.  Elly Swartz includes experts consulted and resources consulted at the close of the book.

To learn more about Elly Swartz please visit her website by following the link attached to her name. At the publisher's website you can read an excerpt.  There are also a reading group guide and a teacher's reading guide available there.  The cover reveal for this title is at Emu's Debuts.  Elly Swartz stops by Scholastic's Ambassador of School Libraries John Schumacher's blog, Watch. Connect. Read.completing his sentences.  Elly Swartz is interviewed at DEBtastic Reads!, Literary Rambles, and Beth McMullen Books.  At School Library Journal, The Yarn, educator Colby Sharp introduces us to the audio book trailer for Finding Perfect.  Elly Swartz chats with teacher librarian Matthew Winner at All The Wonders, Episode 299.  Debut author Bridget Hodder (The Rat Prince) reviews Finding Perfect at the Nerdy Book Club.

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