It's been a long time since I was in the fourth grade. Lori Ann Stephens' Novalee and the Spider Secret took me back because of her narrator's desires, even though her life was quite different from mine. Stephens explores Nova's uncertainty about her feelings, about friendship, about right and wrong, and about getting along in the world. She opens up Nova—and at the same time she opens up readers.
At the beginning of fourth grade, Nova wants friends and acceptance. She wants to stop judging everything that comes out of her mouth. When her mom finds an old violin in the attic, she's intrigued and takes lessons from a man named Jimmy whose affection and neediness make her uncomfortable. She's not exactly sure that he's done something wrong. She just knows that being alone with him makes her feel icky. Creepy. She doesn't want to be his special friend.
Telling anyone her feelings is unthinkable, but eventually she blurts them out to Toby, a boy who likes her even when she was mean to him. Toby advises her to talk to her mother. Though the results are unsatisfactory at first, he goes with her to make sure her mother hears what she's saying. By the end of the book she finds that courage matters. She finds her voice and she gets a friend, though he's not the one she wanted.
At first I was enchanted with Stephens' language. It was clear and appropriately sophisticated for middle graders. Best of all, it was dotted with lovely metaphors. As the story developed, I became more and more intrigued by the plot. The tone, the issues, and the resolution are all right on target. Stephens is a skilled writer with a knack for telling stories that young people need to hear. Get a copy for your grandchild or her/his teacher. It's a great conversation starter as well as an effective and important story.
Lori Ann Stephens is the award-winning author of novels for adults and children. Her first Middle Grade novel is Pierre François: 5th Grade Mishaps, due out in January 2018. Some Act of Vision is the 2013 YA novel winner of the National Readers' Choice Award, hosted by the Romance Writers of America, OK. She is also the author of Song of the Orange Moons (Blooming Tree Press, Nov 2010) and several short stories and poems.
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