Remember those friendly middle-grade novels where kids have everyday problems and their parents, while flawed, are not only functional but are also loving, funny, exasperated, and kind? Well, there’s a new one in town, folks, and it’s charming.
The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z by Kate Messner follows a disorganized middle-grader, Gianna, through the trials and tribulations of her attempts to complete a major seventh-grade requirement in her state: the dreaded Leaf Project. The kids are required to collect, identify, and present (in any way they choose) 25 different species of leaves. It doesn’t sound that hard, and the kids have at least a month to do the project, but Gianna has a little problem with procrastination and distraction. (Oh, I love her; she is so familiar, with her lost permission slips and crumpled homework, her forgotten gym shoes and 11th-hour project efforts. Honestly, she brings me back to my entire childhood.)
Fortunately, Gianna is surrounded by organized friends and family; her male best friend, Zig, is her portable memory at school and helps her stay on track while studying at home. Gianna’s mother, a veritable model of organization, has a hard time understanding Gianna’s well-meaning but haphazard ways. As if the usual school requirements weren’t distracting enough, Gianna’s grandmother has started to have increasingly alarming little memory moments; she leaves her teeth in the refrigerator (no biggie) and forgets she’s put cookies in the oven (biggie). SPOILER ALERT: Usually, a close relationship with a grandparent in a novel is a sure harbinger of grief ahead. The more loving the grandparent, the more likely he/she is to die by book’s end. Without giving away too much, let’s just say that the author here takes a less-trodden path.
Gianna has a great outlet for her energy and anxieties: she’s a runner on the track team, a star sprinter. But unless she can bring up her grades and complete the leaf project on time, she won’t be able to compete in a very big meet. The obstacles between Gianna and her completed leaf project are many; some are comical (a scene where she essentially steals a leaf from the principal’s yard is very funny), and some are more serious (a running rival has it in for Gianna and her project; Gianna has a legitimate excuse for one lost deadline when her grandmother goes missing). There’s a budding romance that starts when her feelings for Zig start to confuse her.
What I love about this book is how solid and fun and comfortable it feels to be in Gianna’s world. Even though she struggles mightily with her own failings, trying to find the strengths within them, her life is essentially a solid, relatively safe one, and there’s something so appealing about that. There are quirky details, too, treated matter-of-factly; Gianna’s family runs a funeral parlor, and occasionally her dad picks her up from school in the hearse (at least the back is always empty; it would show disrespect to make the deceased run errands).
Messner (shown at left) is wryly observant but always warm in her portrayal of her characters. She herself is a seventh-grade teacher in addition to being a writer, which gives her school scenes and kid dynamics that added ring of authenticity. The characters are well-rounded and memorable, there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, and Gianna is a great kid you’ve surely met somewhere in your life. It was frankly a surprise to me how well the author wrote about a disorganized character, since she is one of the best-organized people I’ve ever met.
Earlier this month we hosted Gianna Z‘s launch party, since the author lives not too far away across Lake Champlain, in a town which (sadly) has lost its independent bookstores. The party was a pleasure. Kate Messner and her family brought delicious "Grandma’s funeral cookies" (a version of Mexican wedding cookies), and candy corn, and we had drinks and more cookies. She had a raffle for teachers and librarians; the prize winner received a future free author visit from Kate.
She also brought leafy branches she laid out on two tables in the front of the room for kids and adults to identify after her reading (which was excellent, by the way—clear and engaging and just long enough) and she came prepared with prizes for everyone who identified any two leaves out of the three or four types. The tables were humming with activity. Turns out it’s not THAT easy to identify leaves. We used tree identification booklets; Kate brought several of these, an amazing little resource called Tree Finder: A Manual for the Identification of Trees by Their Leaves by May T. Watts, one of a group of pocket field guides worth investigating. (At left, a group of leaf investigators.)
Kate also brought her son’s incredibly well-organized seventh-grade Leaf Project notebook from a few years ago, which was fun to leaf through (arr arr), and her younger daughter proved to be a valuable ally in the leaf identity challenge. A mere seven or so years old, she was an expert on the subject and helpfully guided our group through some tricky identification questions involving numbers of lobes.
This event was terrific not only because it had a good turnout (thanks in part to Kate, who supplements bookstore promotion with her own mailings and social networking skills), but also because the atmosphere the author created was one of collaboration and warmth. Not only did she thank the bookstore for hosting the event, she praised independent bookstores as a vital and necessary and valuable part of the fabric of a community. She also took the time to introduce to the audience several authors who were attending her reading, a gracious gesture that spoke volumes about her generosity—a trait she shares with her characters.