Sunday, March 8, 2009

A Review of Waiting for Normal by Leslie Connor

Like Frances O’Roark Dowell’s Jamie in Shooting the Moon, Leslie Connor’s Addie is an innocent. It may seem unnecessary to emphasize that a child character is an innocent, but there are two reasons for my emphasis: first, a lot of young book characters these days seems remarkably adult, even jaded, like those sitcom kids on TV; and second, sometimes an author uses the fresh light of a child’s outlook to add meaning to a book. In Shooting the Moon, Jamie’s illusions about war heighten the impact of what is really happening in Vietnam. In Waiting for Normal, Addie’s good cheer is a contrast to the realities of her life.

Dwight, Addie’s ex-stepfather, drops her and Mommers off at their new home, a yellow trailer parked all by its lonesome in the city, beneath an elevated train track. After an incident of neglect, Dwight has been able to get custody of Addie’s two little half sisters, but he is unable to get custody of Addie. It’s pretty clear that this worries Dwight.

Addie settles in, making friends with Soula, who runs the gas station and minimart across the street with the help of a man named Elliot. She eventually joins the school band and gets a hamster. Life seems normal—until she goes to visit Dwight and her sisters and sees the contrast between her life and theirs, or until the next time Mommers screws up. It should be pretty obvious to adult readers, at least, that Mommers is bipolar. While not unkind, Mommers is often negligent, and she expects her daughter to follow her moods around like contrail after a jet.

For her part, Addie is a tough little cookie--not in the street tough sense of the term, but in the sense that she makes the best of things. Little by little, however, she finds herself dragged down by the difficulties of her situation. Addie’s attempts to read and resolve the problems life imposes on her are particularly poignant because her logic is impeccable; it’s just that she’s lacking adult insight. The one that really gets to me is when she gives up playing the flute. It simply doesn’t occur to her that there might be a better solution.

Fortunately, Addie’s grandfather and Dwight are waiting to pick up the pieces. In the meantime, however, Addie goes through things which, while not wildly damaging in and of themselves, are definitely sieves for the soul. Addie shows us how much small hurts can add up for a child, even if she is fundamentally optimistic. Connor gives us a fresh take on the dilemma of being the child of a troubled parent. That is, Addie is a reliable person, but Mommers’s choices render her unreliable. “...I had run away when they were all counting on me. That was the thing that bothered me most: the counting-on part.” Unspoken here is the obvious pain of not being able to count on Mommers. As I read this book, I saw in a way I never had before the power of a parent simply providing a stable foundation, a predictable setting in which a child can work out the plot of her own life.

Ironically, Addie is dyslexic, but she is so sensible and upbeat about her disability that I almost forgot about it until I noticed that Waiting for Normal won a Schneider Family Book Award for 2009. The award is given for great books about children living with disability, whether in themselves or in a friend or family member. In fact, my first impulse was to think the award was given because Addie has to live with her mother’s mental disability--but I suppose it's both. The book was also an ALA Children’s Notable Book and made the ALA’s list of Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults in 2009.

A subplot about Soula, who has cancer, and Elliot, who is gay, simply rounds out the richness of the story telling. Like Dwight, these two offer Addie some much-needed surrogate parenting. When Addie's troubles come to a head, it is Soula who is there for her, not Mommers.

Waiting for Normal is partly a coming-of-age story. At one point Addie, who has seemed so child-like through much of the book, tells Dwight, "I just can't...pretend stuff anymore.... I'm too old to pretend stuff."

Ultimately, things get better for Addie, but this kid works pretty darn hard for her happy ending. It’s not that she’s never discouraged, and she isn't a larger-than-life heroine in the least. Yet somehow, Addie’s earnest tenacity is an inspiration to readers as she keeps on going, just doing the very best she can, waiting and hoping for normal.

Note for Worried Parents (WPs): There’s some talk about Addie getting her period, but it’s handled sensibly and adds to the plot.

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