Just Like That

Book review by
Joly Herman, Common Sense Media
Just Like That Book Poster Image
Warm boarding school grief tale has some gory violence.

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Kids say

age 11+
Based on 3 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Stands out for positive role models.

Educational Value

Set at fictional St. Elene's Preparatory School in Maine, where girls are taught to become "Accomplished" members of society. Meryl Lee doesn't know what this means but knows when she's not doing it. Readers learn a little about dissecting worms, leeches, fetal pigs. Because she reads The Grapes of Wrath and The Wizard of Oz and Shakespeare's sonnets, Meryl Lee weaves what she's learned from these books into her everyday life. She keeps track of current events in the late 1960s, especially pertaining to the Vietnam War. Matt gives useful rules for surviving a winter in Maine.

Positive Messages

Some mysteries have a spiritual component, like whales when they're submerged underwater. The unexpected can hold good things. The journey inward holds great reward. Sometimes people who are being mean are just lonely and hurt. There are times when words do not suffice, but being supportive is always helpful. The future is always in motion. Making friends might require patience, but friendships can spring up spontaneously. Standing up for what you believe is right gives you character and strength.

Positive Role Models

Though she suffers a loss and is shuffled off to boarding school by her parents, Meryl Lee is confused by her parents' choices. But their intentions are not bad -- they're trying to protect Meryl Lee from living at home during their divorce. The headmistress of St. Elene's, Dr. MacKnockater, is willing to stick out her neck and make personal sacrifices for kids who are in danger or who need her support. Dr. MacKnockater also speaks out against the Vietnam War, which ultimately affects her job. Pastor Darius and his wife, Captain Hurd, and Mr. and Mrs. Tush are adults who take an interest in Matt, housing or employing him out of mercy. Meryl Lee takes a stand against the classism that occurs at her school, risking punishment to do so, but she ultimately succeeds in raising awareness and makes her school a more just place. Holling's funeral is attended by Jewish, Latinx, and Asian mourners. Meryl Lee and her St. Elene's classmates are all White. 


Violence is surprisingly brutal and descriptive in this middle grade novel. Meryl Lee counts the soldiers who die during the Vietnam War, describing reports wherein American soldiers weren't going to leave a battlefield until "every North Vietnamese soldier was dead." Her best friend is killed in a car accident, in which his "head snapped back." Matt, another main character, describes witnessing his childhood best friend's death, who had his "guts blown out," and all the "blood pooling toward him." Matt is beaten very badly, to the extent that his back is slashed with a knife, his eye is beaten shut, and his arm is left hanging. When Meryl Lee is angry at classmates, she imagines finding a place to "hide their bloody bodies," after she commits "justifiable homicide." Adults beat and threaten and kidnap children, making them do drug runs for them and steal money. Matt beats up a kid, hoping to scare others with the blood after he breaks his nose; he pounds a guy's eye shut and holds a shard of glass to a boy's throat so that "blood oozed out." Pastor Darius is beaten within an inch of his life, and blinded by the perpetrator who burns the church to the ground. One of Matt's kidnappers slashes a friend's son with a knife. Matt gets in a fight at a dance, leaving a "remarkable amount of blood on the floor." People are caught in the crossfire of gunfights and die. A young soldier in Vietnam sees his friend's leg blown off, along with the kneecap, spraying the young soldier in the face with blood and the kneecap. Mrs. MacKnockater is beaten and sent to the hospital with a concussion. The adult stalking Matt cuts power lines and tells Matt the horrible things he will do to him with the knife he has, and a knife and hatchet fight ensue. There's brief forced kissing.


Some kissing and hand-holding.


"Damn" said repeatedly. "Hell." A teacher is referred to as "Sharp Arsed Mrs. Connolly."


Coke, Jell-O, Treasure Island, The Jungle Book, Funk & Wagnalls, Houghton Mifflin, Harvard, Nature magazine, Museum of Fine Arts, Moby Dick, A&P, Fig Newtons, Shakespeare's sonnets, Oliver Twist, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, DraculaTiffany, Radio City Music Hall.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Matt smokes a cigarette. Adults smoke. Gang leaders force kids to make drug runs for them. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that in Gary D. Schmidt's Just Like That, some violent scenes punctuate an otherwise witty and wam tale about loss and life at an all-girls boarding school. It's 1968 and Meryl Lee loses her best friend, Holling Hoodhood (a character from Schmidt's Newbery Honor book The Wednesday Wars), in a car accident. Her parents soon decide to send her to boarding school for her eighth grade year to help her focus and to give her a change of scene -- while navigating some issues of their own. At St. Elene's Preparatory Academy for Girls, she is immersed in a culture of fine china and upper-class snobbery. One girl says, upon learning Meryl Lee's last name is Kowalski, that she's never met someone with "Eastern European" roots before. Town girls who work in the school are treated poorly by the school girls and the school faculty, which makes Meryl Lee very uncomfortable. Meanwhile, a boy in town named Matt is on the run from the people who had kidnapped him as a child. Matt's past is graphically violent, and he's seen a teen get shot by an adult because of disobeying the gang leader. Kids are beaten and threatened by gang leaders, chased, and forced to rob people, run drugs, and recruit other kids. Matt beats up three local boys until a boy's nose breaks and he's "pounded his eye shut." He also fights with boys at a dance, spilling so much blood that "the tile grout would never be the same color." There's knife violence against teens, adults beating kids until they're unconscious, and adults stalking, threatening, and stabbing teens. A Black pastor is beaten and blinded, his church burned by the gang in retaliation for helping a kid. The violence of the Vietnam War is also cataloged: one soldier's friend being blown to bits, blood and a "kneecap" blown into the friend's face. 

User Reviews

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Teen, 13 years old Written byBooksRuleReadNow January 1, 2022

I LOVED IT!!!!!!!

I JUST FINISHED IT AND I LOVED IT!!!!!!!!!!! There is a tiny bit of violence... Okay, I take that back. There's violence. But it's not that bad and wh... Continue reading
Teen, 13 years old Written byj-tin November 29, 2021

A very good book

Just Like That is a very good book with a heart-wrenching story. I am amazed at how Gary D. Schmidt was able to craft this story. This is an awesome book with g... Continue reading

What's the story?

At the start of JUST LIKE THAT, Meryl Lee Kowalski loses her best friend, Holling Hoodhood. Shaken by grief and the trauma of losing him "just like that," Meryl Lee begins to drift, and "absolutely everything in the world became a Blank." Thinking that a change would be good medicine, her parents enroll her in St. Elene's Preparatory School for Girls in Maine. Far away from Hicksville, New York, and all of the friends she's ever known. Meryl Lee is haunted by the Blank: the ever-present loss that threatens to engulf her. She struggles to make friends and gain traction with the teachers. But she has an ally in the headmistress, Dr. MacKnockater, who also has a soft spot for a teen named Matt, who Meryl Lee meets while skipping stones at the shore. Meryl Lee must learn to find her sense of purpose, overcome obstacles, and let people help her soften the blow of her loss. 

Is it any good?

Delightful moments and beautiful descriptions color this touching story of loss -- but there are bloody scenes as well. Eighth grader Meryl Lee Kowalski trundles through her first weeks at St. Elene's Preparatory School with a bulky load of grief that she's trying to ignore. The Blank, as she calls it, is ready to break through every hard lesson she's learning, whether it's being looked down upon by her super-rich roommate, or fumbling in field hockey practice. A boy named Matt Coffin also knows something about grief, and his struggles to make it through a winter in the shack where he's squatting create a nice foil for Meryl Lee's lessons in pouring tea and making appropriate conversation.

The violence that surrounds Matt and his unlikely history seem jarring when everything else in the story is moving at such an enjoyable clip. The graphic description of beatings -- gory popped kneecaps and bloody stabbed shins -- create a din against the tender philosophizing and spiritual searching that the main characters are undergoing. But the ending of the story satisfies, and author Gard D. Schmidt captures the essence of going through a grief process from the point of view of two kids whose hearts have been broken and who are in need of compassion.  

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about loss in Just Like That. Meryl Lee is followed by a sensation she calls the Blank. How is grief or trauma characterized in other books or media you've encountered?

  • Meryl Lee follows the news about the war in Vietnam, and she internalizes what she sees. How do you process what you see in the news? Here are some ideas about how to talk about what's going on.

  • Meryl Lee and her friends don't have cellphones -- or even televisions -- at their school. How do they cope without devices to occupy their free time? How do you spend your free time?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love grief stories and coming-of age tales

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