I picked up this book because it’s on one of the summer reading lists at my school. The teacher who chose it did so because it’s on the 2014 Rebecca Caudill nominee list. When I saw it at the bookstore, I looked at its cover and thought, “Oh, this looks like it will be a cute middle grade read.” Sadly, that old adage about judging a book by its cover came true. While I liked some things about this book, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would.
Author: Elizabeth Atkinson
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Age group: upper middle grade
Synopsis: Sixth grader Emma Freke is unusually tall for her age. Despite her enormous height and red hair, she’s practically invisible to her classmates. The only friend she has is a shorter, younger girl who lives across the street with her two moms. Not only does Emma not fit in at school, she doesn’t really fit in at home either. Her mom, a dark-haired and free-spirited Italian woman, runs a bead shop and insists Emma call her Donatella instead of Mom. Even her grandfather who lives with them (she calls him “Nonno,” the Italian for grandpa) doesn’t seem to pay much attention to Emma. Then one day, Emma receives an invitation to a family reunion for her dad’s side of the family. Emma has never met her father, and Donatella refuses to speak about him, so this family reunion is her first chance to see if she can find a place where she fits in.
Say the title of this book aloud and you’ll understand how Emma feels about herself. (I am a freak!) I did like that this book talked about how girls need to accept themselves for who they are. Emma needs to learn that it’s okay to be smarter than the others in her class, that her red hair (which she despises) is actually prized and admired by others, and that being different can actually be a good thing.
However, I wasn’t thrilled with some of the other characterizations in this story, especially the adults. I’ve had a number of parents tell me in the past year or so that they don’t like it when the adults in a story are made to look stupid or incompetent. I know that in many middle grade stories authors find a way to “get rid of” the parents so that the main characters can have adventures, learn, and grow on their own. Sometimes this is accomplished by the children being orphans, sometimes the parents are too involved with work, sometimes they are downright neglectful. I, Emma Freke is one of those stories where the parent (and grandparent) are depicted as being neglectful. Donatella claims her mother was too strict, so she lets Emma do whatever she wants. She even goes so far as to let Emma be homeschooled by her grandfather so that she won’t have to go to “that miserable school.” However, she buys her an outdated homeschooling kit and then says her grandfather will teach her at the library, but of course, her grandfather (who doesn’t seem to speak English terribly well) doesn’t teach her at all.
Many of the adults (from the school psychologist to the crazy aunts and uncles Emma meets at the family reunion) are simply unlikable characters. The only adult I liked in the story was the young librarian who befriends Emma when she goes there to homeschool herself. I’m okay with having some bad adult figures depicted in a book (after all, you do need conflict and not every child has an ideal set of parents); however, this book had too many adults who set poor examples.
Also, my skin gets a little itchy by the way Italian Americans are often portrayed in books and movies. Either we’re mob members or we’re straight out of the cast of Jersey Shore. Let’s just say Emma’s mom has far too many boyfriends and acts more like a rebellious teenager than an adult.
Finally, when books take place in areas I’m familiar with, I usually get excited. However, the family reunion takes place in Wisconsin (a state I lived in for five years), and the facts aren’t quite right. Emma takes a plane from Boston to Milwaukee and then is driven north for two hours where she is presumably in the far northern woods of Wisconsin. Sorry, Ms. Atkinson, I lived in Milwaukee. If you drive two hours north, you’ll be lucky to make it to Green Bay. From the way Ms. Atkinson described the location of the family reunion, she should have had Emma fly into Green Bay and then drive two hours north into the woods. I would be curious to know how Wisconsin-ites feel about this book. I would guess they’d be a little less than pleased with how they are depicted. The whole Wisconsin clan comes across as rather less-than-bright, an interesting choice of characterization for family members given Emma’s superior intelligence.
So despite liking the overall message of this book (acceptance of one’s self), I won’t be buying it for any of my nieces or recommending it strongly for my students.