Holly Goldberg Sloan garnered praise for her novel Counting by 7s in 2013. When her newest novel, Short crossed my path I was excited to read her work. I love a well written novel with a first person narrator. Finding that in a middle grade novel is a challenge, but when done right it can be amazing. When not done right, it can be irritating and forced, among other things. As an adult reader of middle grade fiction, I struggle when the narrator, often some thirty-five years younger than me, possesses more wisdom and insight than I currently do. However, when I am able to channel my eleven-year-old-reader self, she usually loves this kind of voice, which is the voice of Julia Marks in Short.
Julia Marks is a very complete character, and Sloan brings her to life on the page. Julia is short for her age, but she never says the "s" word out loud. She can wear the same clothes year after year because she just doesn't grow that much. However, even at the start of Short, being short isn't a big deal for Julia. At five feet even, I guess I'm short, but it was never a big deal to me as a kid and I appreciate Julia's attitude. Honestly, as I neared the end of the novel I kind of began to wonder why the novel is even titled Short, and why being short is a plot point. However, at the end of the novel when Julia gets some good news, it does allow her final words to be very poignant and wise, something she does, often with humor, throughout the book.
Looking forward to a summer during which she will do a whole lot of nothing, Julia is sad when her two best friends leave town and even less happy when her mother signs Julia and her younger brother up to audition at the university for a play. Soon enough, Julia is impressing Shawn Barr, who has directed shows on Broadway and, "had work run on the West End," and has just arrived from directing dinner theater in Pigeon Forge, TN. And, when he notices her taking initiative, he appoints her "lead Munchkin dancer." Julia also befriends Olive, one of the handful of professional adult performers hired on for the show. Olive is a dwarf, and, besides being friendly to her, she shows Julia that height isn't everything. Julia also befriends an elderly neighbor, Mrs. Chang, who lives in a house filled with her amazing creations and who also is a gifted costumer with a secret wish. In exchange for her costume creations, including winged monkey costumes, Mrs. Chang want to be in the play. In a specific roll. Fortunately, although reluctantly, Shawn Barr agrees and Julia gets a second role in the performance. Both she and Mrs. Chang, will be winged monkeys.
Sloan gives Julia layers that are interesting and realistic. She is still grieving the loss of her beloved dog, Ramon. Julia has recently started drinking the cold coffee her parents leave in the pot in the mornings. When she was in kindergarten Julia and seeking justice for a stolen quarter, she inadvertently cut a boy on the forehead and was sent to the principal. Her whole family wears themed costumes in the town Pet Parade each October. Her mom tried a second career as a party clown after finding a complete clown costume at the local thrift store. And her dad keeps the family scrapbooks, filling them with photos, newspaper clippings and other mementos.
As she looks through these scrapbooks and is not happy with all the saved memories or lack thereof, Julia realizes that "the person who does the work gets to write history," and she decides to keep her own scrapbook of the summer ahead. Julia has other insights, like the fact that she doesn't grow much and doesn't need new clothes too often so she can get attached to pieces of clothing and outfits and wear them again and again like a cartoon character. Julia admits that this, "isn't the kind of thought I'd have on my own." Her dad pointed out to her that cartoon characters always wear the same clothes. She goes on to note that there are, "times when adults act like being different is just the greatest thing, but then when you are, it feels like they are secretly disappointed. I don't think my dad wants a kid who dresses the same every day." When Julia, mourning the loss of her dog, shares a moment of grief with Mrs. Chang, who lost her adult daughter to cancer, she has this philosophical thought, "the old us is a new us every day, and we have to accept that we will have a beginning and a middle and an end." On the eve of opening night, Julia remembers that her mother, who has been gently tending to her butterflies, made her audition, she thanks her and then thinks, "I have to remember how powerful it can be to say thank you. Especially to the people you live with."
While I might find Julia and her insightful interior monologues wise beyond her years, Short is exactly the kind of novel I would want my child to read and her realizations and experiences interacting with the adults around her and the thoughtful way she reacts to them and learns from them are the very kind of wisdom I want imparted to my children. And, the reality of parenthood is that most kids are more likely to listen to almost anyone who is not their parent and I am grateful that there are writers like Holly Goldberg Sloan out there who can bring voices to the page that kids will relate to and respond to.
Source: Review Copy