We are starting a two-week long look at children’s books here at The Jade Sphinx, which seems especially pertinent now that the Christmas holidays are upon us. What astonishes us is not the sheer fecundity of new books hitting the shelves this season, but the extremely high quality of the offerings.
We start with the newest by Barbara Dee, author of The (Almost) Perfect Guide to Imperfect Boys and Drama Queen. When not writing Young Adult novels (her next, Star-Crossed, is slated to appear in spring 2017), she directs the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival. She lives in Westchester County, and you can dip into her blog at Fromthemixedupfiles.com.
Her latest, Truth or Dare: Five Girls, One Summer, Many Secrets, Dee tells a story that is touching and remarkably real. The novel tells of Lia, who manages to overcome the grief of losing her mother in a car crash, thanks to her friendship with four other girls. The girls – Marley, Abi, Makayla and Jules – and Lia return from vacation on the cusp of seventh grade and find that their relationships have subtly altered. They have become competitive and mistrustful of one another; and after a prolonged game of Truth or Dare, Lia finds herself lying to keep up with them.
Her lies are the result of many things: creeping peer pressure, dissatisfaction with herself, and the need (so vital to young people) to define who she is. On top of all that, Lia must deal with the many people who try to help her now that her mother is gone, and reconcile her feelings for her aunt, who has come to the family’s aid, but who many disregard as slightly crazy.
Dee includes touches that work wonderfully well. The aunt, for example, is pretty ‘out there.’ But Lia learns that her eccentricities do not mean she isn’t a valuable member of the family, or that she doesn’t have a lot to contribute. An interesting twist on this all is a neighboring Mom (mother of one of the girls who bullies Lia), who coordinates the neighbors in helping care for Lia’s family. The neighbor is engaged and actively kind, but over-bearing and difficult. In fact, she bullied Lia’s aunt when they were children, and young Lia sees how this behavior can be inherited, and how it affects generations.
Dee’s novel is not a big book in that it does not deal with huge events or earth-shattering crises. But the smaller, intimate vibe of the tale is its greatest strength: this is a slice of life that all of us have experienced in one way or another.
Dee writes of the disorientation that comes with puberty, peer pressure, lying to ourselves (and others) to create a persona, and, most importantly, finding friends who like us for how we are, and not what we seem or wish to be. Dee’s novel is wise in its simplicity, penetrating in its psychology, and engrossing in its raw emotion. This is a model Young Adult novel.
Here is Lia, after concocting her first lie: I’d like to tell you that I didn’t sleep that night, and that all of Sunday I squirmed and blushed when I thought about the lie I’d told my friends. But here’s the truth – by the next morning I felt proud of myself. The tiny green bud of the lie – I kissed Tanner – had bloomed into a gorgeous pink flower overnight, a great big peony I could keep in a vase in front of me and take whiffs of whenever I felt left out of the conversation. I kissed Tanner wasn’t the truth as a statement of What Actually Happened to Me That Summer, but it was a different kind of truth – a statement of What Was Going on Inside My Brain, how all of a sudden I could come up with the details (the walk on the beach, the fifteen-second kiss, the closed eyes). I mean, I’d never even thought of stuff like that before, ever. Not about myself, anyway. So I felt excited, and maybe a little bit scared, about my new power.
If you know young people who are putting together the narrative of their lives, Barbara Dee’s Truth or Dare would make a wonderful addition to their book shelves.