Laura Geringer Books, 2010
Realistic girl fiction
Recommended for grades 5 and 6
Sarah Weeks has a penchant for writing about tweens dealing with difficult physical and emotional issues. Her characters are often forced to grow up quickly and deal with the kinds of problems that often confound adults. In So B. It (2004) 12-year-old Heidi, raised by her mentally challenged mother and an agoraphobic neighbor, leaves everyone and everything she has ever known to discover her roots. In Jumping the Scratch (2006) Jamie is grappling with a horrible secret while also helping his Aunt Sapphy rebuild her broken short-term memory. Being a big fan of the two aforementioned titles, I was thrilled to pick up her newest book. In Week’s latest, her graceful writing style and ability to breathe life into her characters is clearly at work. There are some problems, though. While emotionally taut and heart-wrenching, the pacing and character development does not compare favorably with her previous works.
Like Heidi and Jamie, Verbena “Verbie” Colter is a kid who has been forced to deal with some very grown-up problems. Verbie, who lives with her mom and dad in a small vacation town several hours outside New York City, discovers early on in the book that she is adopted. After finding evidence that her mom had been sending letters and photos of Verbie to her biological mother each year, Verbie forces her parents to come clean about her true origins. As it turns out, her biological father is the younger brother of her dad; he’s a “bad apple” who is currently serving time in a penitentiary for murder. Her biological mother is an alcoholic who drank during pregnancy. As a result, Verbie was born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
The primarily focus of the narrative is on the frayed relationship between Verbie and her adopted mom. At nearly 12-years-old, Verbie has reached a point that many tween girls (as well as every adult female reader) will recognize. It’s that time when nothing your mother does or says is right. When every word is an argument, every action a declaration of war. No matter how understanding and patient Verbie’s mom tries to be, she remains a constant embarassment to her daughter. Verbie can be downright cruel, going so far as to insinuate that her mother is fat and unintelligent. Verbie is racked by competing emotions; she feels such anger and frustration at her mother’s efforts to connect with her, she feels shame at the discovery of her biological parents, and she feels guilty for her mean-spiritedness coupled with the sense that she is helpless in the fight againt her “true” nature.
For much of the book, the central conflict is one of the rarest in children’s literature: character vs. self. Interior stories of this kind are difficult to pull off effectively for the nine-to-twelve set. Unfortunately, As Simple As It Seems falters as a result. Verbie’s internal struggle does not provide enough drama to keep the plot moving. Nearly halfway through the book, Weeks introduces a twist that eventually leads up to the climax: Verbie decides to fool a 9-year-old boy visiting from New York City that she is a ghost who once lived in his rental house. As Verbie and the neighbor boy, Pooch, become friends, she begins to feel bad about her deceit.
Had this moral dilemma been introduced slightly earlier in the story, the pacing may not have suffered as much. Sadly, the time in-between Verbie’s first realization in the second chapter and her ghost scheme that comes in the eighth feels plodding and a bit too leisurely. It may leave readers somewhat bored, wondering when something will happen.
When something exciting does finally happen, (in the form of Verbie being forced to confess the truth when Pooch is in mortal danger), both the melodrama surrounding the climax and its resolution feel predictable and a tad too neat. Verbie’s sudden self-awareness by the end of the novel comes too quickly and as a result we as readers are not given the opportunity to really watch this character mature- we are merely told that she does.
There’s one more problematic issue that I must mention. At one point, Verbie and Pooch discuss Native American canoe repair techniques. After using the term “Indians,” Pooch chides Verbie telling her that they are supposed to use “Native American.” Verbie replies, “That’s only in school…..In real life everyone still says Indian.” Later on the same page, Verbie and Pooch try to think up “Indian” names for themselves, such as “Running Bear” and “Sitting Squaw.” Had there been some reason involving the progression of the story or character development to justify the use of a word as offensive as squaw, it could be made understandable. There is no further mention, however, of this conversation or the character’s use of these terms. It’s an unfortunate mistake.
Although Week’s latest did not resonate with me as much as So B. It or Jumping the Scratch, there is an emotional intensity in the mother-daughter relationship that rings true and authentic. As Simple As It Seems would be a solid choice for a girl’s book club (or even better, a mother-daughter book group) as there is plenty of material ripe for discussion. With the caveat, however, that the discussion leader take time to talk about the use of potentially offensive language.