Robin Brande's Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature is the story of Mena, who starts her first day of high school in the face of outright hatred from her former friends. Her parents are furious with her, and she's been kicked out of her church. She hints at why on the first page:
"When you're single-handedly responsible for getting your church, your pastor, and every one of your former friends and their parents sued for millions of dollars, you expect to make some enemies. Fine."
A compelling start. Only gradually is Mena's exact action revealed, but it's clear early on that her former church friends are not treating Mena with much Christian charity. Soon, in addition to tormenting Mena, the group find a new target for their displeasure. Award-winning science teacher Ms. Shepherd is planning to teach a unit on evolution. This sparks protests and controversy, and a request to also teach "intelligent design", despite the legally mandated separation of church and state.
Fortunately Mena and Ms. Shepherd both find allies in the Connor family. Freshman Casey becomes Mena's lab partner, and awakens her interest in biology in more ways than one. Casey's older sister Kayla is a budding activist and journalist, who expands Mena's perspective. Mena's friendship with the Connors is a bit tricky, however, because her very strict parents would never allow her to go home to study with a boy after school. She's certainly not allowed to date, or even watch movies like The Lord of the Rings (or anything to do with magic). And so, despite being a "good girl", Mena lies to her parents. The lure of spending time with the Connors (especially Casey) is just too strong. She even becomes a guest columnist on Kayla's website, under the pen name The Bible Grrrl (there's now a real-world website for The Bible Grrrl).
The central element that makes this book, with it's church-going villains and questions about evolution, work is the fact that through it all, Mena maintains her belief in God. She struggles to reconcile her religious beliefs with her understanding of evolution. She likes church, and doesn't like being banished, but knows in her heart that she did the right thing (in the event that led to her banishment). She sees the people from her church doing things that are clearly wrong, under the banner of religion, but she doesn't blame the religion itself.
Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature reminded me a bit of the very funny movie Saved! (starring Jena Malone), especially the behavior of the Christian teens. I would imagine that religious fundamentalists wouldn't care for the book, because they are portrayed in a fairly negative manner (especially the pompous minister). But this isn't an anti-religion book, either, because Mena's goal is to show that believing in God and believing in evolution are not mutually incompatible. She uses her Bible Grrrl platform to address modern-day issues through Biblical examples. I would say that this is a book for everyone in the middle, for people who question and seek enlightenment. It's for people who believe in science, but perhaps also like the idea of believing in something more divine. Because Mena's behavior is (despite a few lies to her parents) pretty straight-laced, I think that kids as young as 9 or 10 could safely read this book, but that it will appeal more to middle schoolers and high school kids. It would make a great discussion book for parents to read along with their children.
But beyond all of that, Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature is a fun, engaging read that I think kids will enjoy. My favorite character is Kayla. She's larger than life, a real force of nature. One of the quotes that I flagged was this:
"I widened my eyes at Casey and shook my head, but it was too late. His giant sister rounded on me.
And she smiled--I swear--this big, friendly smile like the one their mother had given me earlier. And it's like her whole personality changed right before my eyes. If I hadn't been so afraid of her, I would have loved that smile. Instead it was like staring into the teeth of a shark." (Chapter Nineteen)
I can so picture it! I love Mena, too, but in a different way. She frustrated me sometimes, because she didn't react the way that I would have. She's very much dominated by her parents, especially early in the book, and I simply couldn't relate. But of course that's what makes the book a success - Mena reacts in ways that are consistent with her upbringing and her growing maturity. The science teacher, Ms. Shepherd, is also a great character. She's strong yet quirky, and completely committed to making kids understand the joys of science. I like the way that Ms. Shepherd helps Mena, but also holds her to certain standards, and has no patience for the lies that Mena is telling her parents. Here's my favorite Ms. Shepherd quote:
"Ms. Shepherd couldn't take it anymore. "That's enough," she snapped. "Last time I checked, I was the one being underpaid to do this job. Visiting hours are over. It's time to get back to work. Open your books to page ninety-five. Ms. Bailey, you will read." (Chapter Twenty-One)
I love "I was the one being underpaid to do this job." Sharp and accurate. That's Ms. Shepherd. Ms. Shepherd has a website, too. This is a very modern story. Speaking of which, and in the interest of full disclosure, I should close this review by acknowledging that Robin Brande is a blog friend of mine. I participate in events on her website, like her Tuesday Book Club and Friday Nice Things Lists (in which people focus on the nice things that they've done for themselves over the week). I'll be participating in the Kidlitosphere Conference that she's organizing. But, never once has Robin asked me to read, let alone review, her book. What drew me to read it is that that I started hearing positive feedback several months ago, and it sounded like a book that I would enjoy. So I requested it from my library (where I was apparently the very first person to check it out). And once I started reading, I pretty much forgot that Robin wrote it, and just concentrated on the book. I predict great success for Evolution, and I'm sure that it won't be Robin's last. I, for one, look forward very much to what she comes up with next.
Publication Date: August 2007
Source of Book: Santa Clara City Library
Other Blog Reviews: Tea Cozy, Not Acting My Age, Through a Glass, Darkly, Literary Dump, Lesa's Book Critiques, Teen Book Review, Hello Ma'am, Oops... Wrong Cookie, Reading Rants! (and others)
Author Interviews: squeetus, Teen Book Review, Publisher's Weekly, and last, but definitely not least, Seven Impossible Interviews Before Breakfast
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.