A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Sara Zarr's Gem & Dixie is about the ebb and flow of the relationship between two sisters growing up in a neglectful home. Their dad left years ago and is rarely in touch. Their mom falls in and out of sobriety and cannot hold a job for very long. The sisters respond to their upbringing in opposite ways, which makes them grow apart. Themes of loneliness, anxiety, coping mechanisms, and family relationships run through the story. The girls engage in some risky behavior, such as lying about where they are, stealing, drinking, smoking, and hanging out with strangers. These actions aren’t glorified, but rather serve as important plot points and character development. Swearing is not frequent and includes, "f--k" and its variations, "s--t," and "a--hole." Dixie uses her looks to get what she wants, but there's no kissing or sexual situations beyond flirting. The book presents good discussion topics around parenting styles (especially parents who would rather be friends with than parent their kids) and how hard it is for school administrators and social workers to help kids from neglectful but not physically abusive homes.
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What's the story?
GEM & DIXIE tells the story of teen sisters who have developed their own ways of coping with neglectful parents. Gem, the older sister, takes on the role of watcher and caregiver for her sister and single mother. She listens for signs of alcohol or drug use in her mother's voice and keeps an eye on her sister. Dixie operates on hope with a little bit of grit, using her looks to get what she wants, such as much needed food and attention. Though close when they were little, the sisters have grown apart in their teen years. Dixie's popular and confident, while Gem's an anxious loner with no friends. When their manipulative, long-absent dad re-enters the picture, he unwittingly sets in motion an escapade for the girls. The two take off for a while, alternately reconnecting and fighting, trying to figure out where things went so wrong between them and how they can maintain their sanity living in an unstable home with absent parents. They struggle with wanting to believe their family can turn things around vs. accepting that some people are messed up and you have to do what you can to save yourself. The story highlights how kids suffering from neglect can be easily overlooked by those who are supposed to help them.
Is it any good?
This story of neglected teen sisters trying to cope with an unstable upbringing is both sobering and sweet. Gem, the older sister in Gem & Dixie, is a character who has an authentic, engaging voice. Watching her come to terms with her family's dynamics is heartbreaking, and you can't help rooting for her. The wrap up to her story feels rushed, though. It would have been nice to get more detail on her progress. Dixie seems like the clichéd popular mean girl, but her character is revealed to be much sadder and complex than that. Author Sara Zarr tells the story in an emotional and realistic way, showing how victims of neglect are hard to identify and help, as well as what that kind of instability at home does to a kid emotionally.
The sibling relationship is fascinating. Zarr explores how two kids raised in the same circumstance can manifest their upbringing in opposite ways. The relationship between Gem and Dixie illustrates the way many of us define ourselves in comparison to our siblings and by our roles within our families. The characters and actions feel realistic, except the few times when characters lay out the author's messages in ways that seem forced. Those minor points aside, this is a compelling read and will give readers good food for thought.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how Gem & Dixie deals with parents who don't parent their kids. How does it compare with other books and movies about kids raising themselves? Many kids might like the idea of being left to their own devices, but what do you think are the downsides?
How does the neglect shown in this book compare with other forms of abuse? Do you think there are kids you know who might be going through tough home situations but don't show it?
Have you ever had to pull away from an important relationship in order to take care of yourself? Are you glad you did?
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