Cindy: Last week, we held our first middle-school book club meeting of the year. Discussing our taste in books, I told the teens my favorites are always ones that make me laugh and cry. Falling Over Sideways (2016), Jordan Sonnenblick’s latest, is a perfect example.
The start of Claire’s 7th-grade year is full of the pitfalls that plague many a middle schooler: embarrassing situations, stupid rules, fashion mistakes, mean girls, and annoying boys. While she is trying to figure out how to navigate all that, her father has a stroke at the dinner table, with just Claire home to handle the crisis. In a split second, life changes for the whole family—especially for her father, who is lucky to have survived, but has lost all independence. Claire is traumatized by what she has witnessed and horrified by this new version of her father, one who struggles to speak and control his movements. While her mom and older brother step up to assume new responsibilities, Claire is in denial and avoids most of the work as well as spending time with her father, who no longer seems like her father at all.
This doesn’t sound very funny, does it? But Sonnenblick excels at heart and humor, as evidenced in Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie (2005) and its sequel, After Ever After (2010). There’s a lot of healing going on here, too, and not just with Claire’s father’s condition: Claire comes to terms with her own paralysis and learns to help out. The novel also makes a great read-alike for The Meaning of Maggie (2014) by Megan Jean Sovern, in which a girl’s father is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
Lynn: I’m a big fan of Jordan Sonnenblick’s books too, even though serious diseases—a subject I’d rather avoid—are important facets of his books. In this new novel, Sonnenblick’s depiction of Claire’s struggle to deal with her father’s condition went right to my heart. For teens, a parent’s healthy presence is often just assumed. Teens are busy creating their own identities and beginning the move to independence. To suddenly witness a parent in a weakened, vulnerable, or compromised physical condition literally shakes their worlds.
One of the great strengths of Sonnenblick’s writing is his ability to create teen characters and dialogue that is completely authentic. I often feel that the characters could walk out of his books and right into our schools. Claire is a terrific example. Already dealing with changing friendships, disappointment, and bullying, Claire cannot deal with her father’s condition and the guilt she feels. Sonnenblick does a terrific job of depicting the her confusing reactions and the honesty of her emotions, making them feel like our own. Fortunately, not many kids’ parents suffer sudden, life-altering strokes, but readers young and old will feel they have walked that road with Claire.