The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. is a middle grade novel by Kate Messner, who has also published two historical novels for kids, Spitfire and Champlain and the Silent One. I haven't met Kate, but I do read her blog and follow her Twitter updates. I especially liked a recent post of hers written in defense of summer reading. I requested the book, in part, because I've liked what she has to say on the blog, and I was interested to see what she had to say in a children's book.
The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. is about a particularly tumultuous week in the life of Vermont middle schooler Gianna Zales. Gianna is on the hook to finish a science project involving the collection and classification of 25 leaves. If she doesn't turn in the project on time, she won't be allowed to participate in the upcoming sectionals with the track team. Unfortunately, completing projects on time is not Gianna's strength. She'd rather be running, sketching, dreaming, or baking cookies with her grandmother, Nonna.
Adding to Gianna's stress is the fact that Nonna, who lives with Gianna's family, is showing signs of forgetfulness and disorientation. Gianna is also faced with a burgeoning awkwardness with her long-time friend, Zig, who seems to be looking at her a bit differently all of a sudden, a "mean girl" rival at school, and a new friend who has problems of her own. Being teased about the fact that her family runs a funeral parlor is just icing on the cake.
The leaf motif resonates throughout the book. In addition to collecting leaves, Gianna and Zig classify people based on what kind of tree best represents them. Gianna also runs across and discusses various poems by Robert Frost, particularly "Birches". And, because she's an artist, she draws leaves, and really sees their colors. This lends a lyrical tone to the book.
I must admit that I was a bit skeptical about this book, mid-way through. There's a lot going on, in a relatively slim package. And I wondered if the whole Robert Frost thing was more something that adults would appreciate than something that would be compelling for kids. There's a scene mid-way through the book in which Gianna hears a teacher read Birches aloud. Gianna muses on parallels between a line in the poem about "get(ting) away from earth awhile" with Nonna's moments of blankness. I thought: is this realistic? But then ... I remembered all of the poems that I wrote when I was in middle school, poems that reflected my own quest to better understand the world. And I thought: OK, maybe so.
By the end of the book, though, I was completely won over. I liked the way the many threads of the story came together, and the balance between happy and realistic endings. I appreciated the warmth of the final scenes, and the way that Gianna solved her problems. Most of all, Gianna felt real to me. She's far from perfect, but her imperfections are genuine. There's a scene in which she falls out of a classroom window, reaching for a leaf. When her teacher lectures her she thinks "It's hard to argue after you fall out a window, no matter how low it is to the ground." It made me laugh. I also adored Zig. He's a bit of a geek, one of those boys more likely to be appreciated as an adult. But he's 100% reliable. I would absolutely read another book about Gianna and Zig, if one were forthcoming someday.
The setting was well-done, too, I could practically see and smell this small town in Vermont in the fall, and the farmer's market that the family visits over the border in Canada. For example:
"So many colors get thrown together here, like they're all shouting to be heard at once. Orange pumpkins next to bright pink mums with dark green leaves. Yellow gourds piled high next to crates of polished red apples. I'm clicking away when Ian pulls on my sleeve." (Chapter 2 - the farmer's market)
"Today's workout is a trail run on the winding path through the wood behind school, so I warm up with a lap on the track. Then I take off into the trees at full speed, breathing in a big gulps of autumn. Fallen leaves have their own unique smell, an awesome earthy smell you don't get when you're running on pavement. Your feet have to be crunching the leaves into the dirt, over the rocks, and then you can smell it all around you." (Chapter 14)
I also thought that the author did a good job conveying that feeling of change - of moving on to middle school, and having different classes, and just starting to think about boys, and feeling better about yourself when you wear certain clothes. For instance:
"I've made a little mound of crumbly dry moss hair on the rock. Zig puts his hand over mine and frowns. "Stop picking at that," he says. "It's protected."
"The moss is an endangered species or something?" I laugh. The laugh comes out funny, though. My hand is all tingly, where his warm hand covers it. Maybe my hands are just cold. Before I can figure it out, his hand is gone. I guess he was only worried about the moss." (Chapter 3)
I think that The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. will work well for fifth or sixth grade girls, especially those of an artistic or outdoorsy disposition. I could see it as a classroom read-aloud, too. There's plenty to discuss, and Zig is a strong enough character to pull in the boys. And, of course, many kids are struggling with the focus problems in school, and problems with the health of grandparents at home. There are no easy answers in this book, but there is determination. The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. is a book that I'll remember for a long time. I recommend it.
Publisher: Walker Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: September 1, 2009
Source of Book: Advanced Review Copy from the publisher. Quotes should be checked against the final printed book.
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© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.