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Not If I Can Help It

Book review by
Joly Herman, Common Sense Media
Not If I Can Help It Book Poster Image
Genuine kid voice wavers in tale of divorce and disability.

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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

Willa's struggles with Sensory Processing Disorder provide a chance for readers to understand what it feels like to have this challenge. Socks need to be pre-stretched, no tags allowed, no itchy or tight clothing, or else Willa's sense of calm evaporates. Her occupational therapy sessions are outlined in detail. Willa's brother Benji loves geography and history, so whatever random facts he's interested in, like the origin of the Austrian flag, are mentioned as well.

Positive Messages

Change is hard, but acceptance is a tool that can make it possible. Friends can stick by you and make your life easier. Everyone has some issue, which can make our own issues feel more human. The world is not perfect, so we have to adjust to what is. Families come in all shapes and sizes. Being yourself is what matters, so don't fight it. Help is there if you need it. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Willa is being raised by her dad during the week and she and her brother go to their mom and step dad's for the weekend. Her parents understand her sensory issues, and they are patient and skilled in dealing with her. Ruby's mom is also patient and kind. The parents are very empathetic in their attempts to make living with divorce and remarriage as easy on their kids as possible. WIlla feels very comfortable and supported by her occupational therapist, Maureen.

Violence & Scariness

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Not If I Can Help It , by Printz Honor-winning author Carolyn Mackler (The Earth, My Butt and Other Big, Round Things), is a book about divorce, remarriage, and their effects on children and families. Willa Grover is a fifth-grader living in the Upper West Side of New York City. She lives with her dad and her younger brother, Benji, during the week and goes to her mom and stepdad's in Upstate New York on the weekends. Willa has Sensory Processing Disorder, which, in her words, "means that being in my body is harder than it is for most people." She gets edgy and cranky if things don't feel right or if she's overwhelmed, which means she might scream, squeal, or throw tantrums when other people might just take a deep breath. Changes in the family dynamic challenge the kids in the book, but the families work hard to make changes easier on the kids involved.

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What's the story?

In NOT IF I CAN HELP ITfifth-grader Willa Grover wants her life to be predicable. She's finally gotten used to living with her dad on weekdays and going to visit her mom on the weekends. She likes her girl-cave bedroom full of LEGOs; she wants -- no, needs -- her clothes to be soft, not clingy or itchy. She will not tolerate cream cheese on her bagel, and she really, really wants to get a dog. But what Willa doesn't want is for her best friend Ruby to know why these things are so important to her. She wants her private life to remain private. Because Willa has Sensory Processing Disorder, it means that her body is very uncomfortable with things that are standard for other people, such as the smell of scented candles, or wearing stiff jeans, which makes her feel like she's losing control. But when Willa finds out that her life and that of her best friend Ruby's are about to get more intertwined, WIlla has to decide whether she can manage the big changes coming her way. Ultimately, she needs to accept life for its imperfections, whether she wants to or not.

Is it any good?

This important exploration of life after divorce for a kid with challenges falls short of its potential. Though the plot points in Not If I Can Help It are there -- a conflict that seems insurmountable for the struggling main character and a twist that could drive the ending either way -- the narrative doesn't always sound true to a kid's thoughts. The narrator does a fair amount of explaining in an adult manner, which isn't as much fun as wholehearted kid-like immersion. Eleven-year-olds usually don't say that "everyone glances at you in pity" when a kid's sent to the time-out area of the room. Nor does it sound quite right for a kid to say "[we] struck a careful peace" when the "we" in this scenario are two 21st century fifth-graders in the middle of the biggest fight of their friendship.    

Kids who struggle with sensory challenges or learning disabilities will appreciate that Willa wants to hide her challenges. Nobody wants to stick out. Wincing at references to her "broken home" also feels real, because Willa has fought to make the best of the divorce situation. Luckily, her parents make a real effort for their kids, and they work as a team. Also nice is the fact that the story gains momentum and grace as it comes to a satisfying conclusion. Life may not be perfect, but when families and friends work together to help with the changes, it can get sweeter. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Parents can talk about the digital diets in Not If I Can Help It. WIlla's dad doesn't let the kids use phones or devices in their rooms, but Ruby's mom is more lax. What are the screentime rules in your family?

  • Willa's adversary, Avery, finds an old video of Willa on YouTube where she's doing something embarrassing. What do you allow to be put on the internet? What if something is posted without your permission?

  • How realistic does the portrayal of family life among divorced parents seem in Not If I Can Help It? What books or shows depict family life in a way that reflect your experiences or observations?

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