In two very different but affecting middle-grade novels, we learn about the complicated inner lives of girls as they confront their fears, bullies, and the uncertainties of growing up.
Author and educator Jennifer Maruno (When the Cherry Blossoms Fell, Warbird) brings emotional range and tension to her sensitive and thoughtful historical fiction, Until Niagara Falls. Set on the Canadian side of the Falls in the 1960s, we are introduced to Brenda, a naive and carefree tween who still plays with dolls when she’s not riding her bike and swimming at the local pool. Soon Maureen, a street-smart new girl from the big city, moves to town and gives Brenda a glimpse of rebellion.
Maureen insinuates herself into Brenda’s life, and they spend their summer decoding teenage lust and hunting old beer bottles for cash. But the excitement fades fast when Maureen is caught stealing jewellery from Brenda’s stern Scottish grandmother.
Earlier in the story, Brenda had fallen under the spell of a much different figure: the Great Blondin, the first man to walk a tightrope across Niagara Falls. Brenda is studying his daring feat as part of a Grade 5 project. Maruno skilfully weaves the interplay of literal tightrope walking and Brenda’s current balancing act: expectations for good-girl behaviour that conflict with a new-found taste for excitement and the unknown.
Though very much historical fiction, Until Niagara Falls shines in its timeless portrayal of tweendom’s emotional churn. Maruno convincingly evokes nostalgia of the 1960s – a childhood spent buying penny candy, attending the CNE in its heyday, and submitting ideas to slogan-writing contests – while still offering a story relevant to today’s readers. Brenda is an authentic and complex protagonist whose world expands when she starts to push beyond being a people-pleaser, standing up for her values and beliefs as she finds the courage to brave Maureen’s bullying tactics and get her grandmother’s bracelet back. The falling-out between the two girls is acutely painful. Though set in earlier times, this preteen angst proves universal.
Fast-forward a few decades to the modern, fantastical story My Best Friend and Other Illusions by Suri Rosen (Playing with Matches). We meet Charlie Green, a 13-year-old aspiring acrobat who just wants to make enough money from her part-time clowning jobs to get into a prestigious gymnastics camp in Montreal where she can train for the circus.
Charlie’s father has died, her best friend has moved away, and her mother is struggling to pay the bills as a piano teacher. Charlie also has a former best friend at school who is out to humiliate her on social media. Lastly, she’s worried about her 11-year-old brother, Miles, who has developed an online poker habit.
When Charlie puts out a call for a gymnastics partner, she gets a response from a quirky boy named Rudy Jellen. Rudy just happens to be Charlie’s imaginary friend – from her earlier childhood days – come to life.
Rudy brings fun and whimsy to every mischievous turn: he shows up at Charlie’s school as a rock-god guitarist, pours laundry detergent into the town square fountains, and helps Charlie win a big talent show. But readers will have to put in some effort and suspend disbelief in order to accept the way in which Rudy showed up in human form at just the right time. Let’s just say there’s a fair bit of magic, which comes courtesy of a call-centre worker in India.
Rosen deftly explores family dynamics, with a sharp focus on the heavy load of single parenthood. Charlie’s exasperated mother, Jennifer, often says, “Do you have any idea how hard it is for me to be on my own?” But Rosen contrasts Jennifer’s prosaic day-to-day slog with piano playing, describing her mood by way of classical music: the Julliard-trained pianist plays Bach when relaxed, Beethoven when irritated, and pounds out a Schumann passage “like an assault rifle” when things are “very bad.”
Although one story is magical and the other historical, both novels take likeable leads through emotional journeys of growth and self-awareness incorporating surprising elements.