Review: Ten Miles Past Normal by Frances O’Roark Dowell

Ten Miles Past Normal by Frances O’Roark Dowell
Atheneum, 2011 (currently available)

Genre: Contemporary Realism

Face Value: Actually, I love this cover a lot! It looks like the cover designer actually read the book and designed accordingly, and the girl has a head! The farm background is pretty, and the fully pictured girl is totally of the book, right down to the outfit & the bass.

My only complaint is the title. It’s not a bad title, nothing embarrassing or cringeworthy about it. It’s not irrelevant to the book. But I can think of about four million other current middle grade & YA titles that sound basically the same. Off the top of my head: Waiting for Normal by Leslie O’Connor, Define Normal, by Julie Anne Peters, Deliver Us from Normal, by Kate Klise, The Last Exit to Normal, by Michael Harmon, Absolutely Normal Chaos, by Sharon Creech, and a whole host of others. So it doesn’t stand out that much in a list.

Does it Break the Slate? Totally! Janie is thoughtful, creative, compassionate, smart and relatable. I admire her, want to be her friend, and want to give her big sisterly advice. Janie is a Slatebreaker just for her personal journey, not to mention that throughout the story she does the following: rock out as a bass player in a band, become a civic activist, create political art, make awesome friends, reject a stupid boy, kiss an excellent boy, milk goats and learn to quilt.

Who would we give it to? Girls who are looking to move from middle grade up to young adult, fans of The Penderwicks who will become fans of Sarah Dessen, readers interested in any of the following: farms, sewing, playing in a band, civil rights, kissing cute older boys named Monster.

Review: As I mentioned, this book falls right on the cusp of middle grade and young adult (most of the marketing places it in YA markets, but I found it in the middle school section of my public library). It’s nice to find books that fit into this space, for middle school or younger high school readers. High school setting, complete with friends drama and crushes and school bus embarrassment. There’s romance but it carefully walks the line between tame enough for a sixth grader and alluring enough for a tenth grader.

Basically, Janie Gorman is a smart, thoughtful ninth grader who really expected to love high school. But then she starts, and things don’t go according to plan. She doesn’t fit in right away. She hardly ever sees the friends she had throughout elementary and middle school. And the fact that she lives on a farm outside of town results in a whole lot of teasing when she accidentally shows up at school with hay in her hair or boards the bus with goat poop stuck to her ballet flat. So she’s stuck eating lunch in the library, regretting the fact that back in elementary school it was her idea to move out to a farm in the first place. All she wants is to be normal, but it’s hard when your mom’s blog advertises to the world your family’s assorted farming exploits. Things start to get better when she meets an odd but supportive lunchtime friend, starts playing bass in the school’s Jam Band and begins working on a local civil rights project with her long time best friend Sarah and Sarah’s wild older sister Emma.

So yeah, there are about a million mini-plots, but they all work pretty well and bring themselves to reasonably satisfying conclusion. And I really felt that each of these activities or friendships or moments were part of what brought Janie to her ultimate character growth.

One of the things I loved about this book is that Janie has awesome friends. I LOVE realistic depictions of friends in my YA books! Especially girl friends who actually talk and relate to each other the way friends do! I thought Dowell totally nailed the “we’ve been friends forever and I love you but that means you sometimes underestimate or bully me” kind of friendship that Janie and Sarah have without turning Sarah into a villain or Janie into a whiner. And Verbena is funny and quirky but not a total caricature.

Monster, despite the name, is a terrifically written love interest. Jeremy Fitch is a terrifically written crush-turned-jerk. I really loved the moment where Janie realizes that the object of her adoration is actually a tool, and I also love the moment when she realizes she doesn’t have to hate him – she just doesn’t care that much anymore. Nice touch.

Plus, major points for the feminism and civil rights activism! I love that at this small town high school there is a whole class called “Great Girls and Women.” I don’t care that that’s totally implausible, I love it! It’s also implausible that the school would have a successful jam band but those scenes are too good to care about the realism of it too. Anyway, back to “Great Girls,” –Janie & Sarah consider doing a major project on Madeline Albright and Geraldine Ferraro, but ultimately decide to look for a local hero, and write about two women in their community who founded a Freedom School. The narrative of the girls researching and interviewing the older community members could totally have been all heavy handed and “let’s all learn a lesson about respecting our elders and their stories” but it really wasn’t. It all rang pretty true, and I could actually see this project inspiring similar ones in readers, getting young people to look into the local history of their communities. Certainly the teacher in me thinks it would be a great starting point for class projects.

Some downsides: the romance is a little disappointing. The buildup between Janie and Monster is exciting but it fizzles out at the end with the two deciding to be just friends because of the age difference between them. Yeah, maybe that’s mature and realistic, but the swoon-seeking reader in me was really hoping for more than that one good kiss. However, one good kiss holds out the possibility for more and I would definitely love to hear more of Janie’s story. I think others will too.

Review copy from Library

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One Response to Review: Ten Miles Past Normal by Frances O’Roark Dowell

  1. Brianna says:

    My library copy is impatiently waiting for me at home. I plan to read it ASAP upon my return from Chicago!

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