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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.
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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?
- Author: Gary D. Schmidt
- Genre: Coming of Age
- Topics: Activism, Arts and Dance, Friendship, Great Girl Role Models, Middle School, Misfits and Underdogs
- Book type: Fiction
- Publisher: Clarion Books
- Publication date: January 5, 2021
- Publisher's recommended age(s): 10 - 18
- Number of pages: 400
- Available on: Nook, Audiobook (unabridged), Hardback, iBooks, Kindle
- Last updated: February 24, 2021
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