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The 12 Dares of Christa by Marissa Burt, 304 pp, RL: MIDDLE GRADE

I started reading The 12 Dares of Christa by Marissa Burt with certain expectations and almost stopped reading it when those expectations weren't being met. However, the moment I almost put this book down was also the moment that the main character Christa deepened, becoming more interesting and real than the holiday festooned, European locations (Florence! Paris! London!) that first attracted me to this book. With The 12 Dares of Christa, Burt gives readers the gift of a story with a genuine narrator who, in the midst of her loss and sadness learns to, "find the gifts of today."

Thirteen-year-old narrator Christa is the only child of a stage actor and a travel agent. Celebrating Christmas, especially the annual traditions her family has, means the world to her and she has even figured out how to pack in as many of these traditions as possible before they leave to spend the holidays in Europe, where her mother will be performing on stage. On November 1, the day on which the planning for the season begins, Christa's parents tell her that they are getting a divorce, her mother is moving out, and her father will not be joining them on their big trip. Knowing that the divorce and spending the holidays apart will be hard for Christa, her father cleverly creates twelve dares that she will receive as she travels, dares that will remind her of their traditions, keep a connection with his daughter and encourage her to take advantage of this great opportunity and enjoy some "mother-daughter" time.

However, Christa's mother is an actor on a job and Christa spends most of her time with the other kids of actors, the three teenaged boys and two girls, being shown around by tour guides, Miles and Melissa. More than a book about exploring Europe during the holidays, The 12 Dares of Christa is about a child dealing with loss, coping with change, and coming to terms with her new reality. As Christa comes out of her shell, the other kids on tour help her meet the challenges of her dares. When Christa sees her mother kissing a fellow actor (and also the divorced father of Kylie, the most annoying kid on the trip) she is devastated and begins to pull away from her mother. Christa gradually overcomes her anxieties surrounding deadly food allergies and small spaces, finding ways to connect with Kylie, her mother and her own creative self. She also finds her voice and finally shares her sadness, confusion and pain with her mother and father. And she even has her first kiss.

Burt's portrayal of a young teenager coping with changes in her family and the increasingly adult challenges that this (and growing up) brings is poignant and feels very real, even when aspects of the plot feel (from an adult perspective) a bit contrived. With The 12 Dares of Christa, Burt has found an engaging, creative setting to talk about powerful emotional experiences. I gave The 12 Dares of Christa a reading level of "middle grade" as an indicator that this is a book that contains crushes - among adults and teens - but please know that Burt presents this in the most gentle way possible. 

Source: Review Copy

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