On the Spectrum by Jennifer Gold

On the Spectrum

Jennifer Gold, Author

Second Story Press, Fiction, Sep. 12, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 13-18

Themes: Unhealthy Eating, Autism Spectrum, Family Relationships, Siblings, Paris

Synopsis: Growing up in the shadow of a famous ballerina mother, Clara has never felt good about her body.  She remembers her mother taking her trick-or-treating and letting her pick out one piece of candy before pitching the rest into the trash. Now, at sixteen, she has an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. A school counselor intervenes, tells Clara she has an eating disorder and consults with her mother, who feels like a monster mom. With her diagnosis and a bullying incident on social media, Clara decides to  escape for the summer to Paris to stay with her estranged dad, step-mother and six-year-old brother, Alastair, who is on the autism spectrum. Charged with his care, Clara and Alastair set out to explore the city. Paris, and a handsome young French baker, teaches Clara about first love and a new appreciation of food. And Alastair teaches Clara about patience, trust, and the beauty of loving without judgment.

Why I like this book:

Occasionally you discover a book that captures your heart and you know you are reading something special. Jennifer Gold’s On the Spectrum is like that. It is a story about love, family relationships, differences, friendships, patience and acceptance. She introduces readers to Clara, who is fixated with healthy eating, exercise and clean living, but isn’t necessarily anorexic or bulimic. She exists on a spectrum, just like her half-brother, Alastair, who has autism.  Their journeys are cleverly intertwined and create a fun-loving adventure for readers.

Gold offers readers an important glimpse into the dynamics that play a role in Clara’s eating disorder. Clara has a strained but loving relationship with her mother, who has a life-long obsession with food. It’s honest but fragile. There is a touching moment when her mother shares the damage that her poor nutritional habits have caused her body. Her mother realizes she’s been a poor role model and wants to see her daughter healthy. Clara’s issues with food are realistically portrayed. She is slim, but doesn’t look anorexic. When Clara looks at bread, she thinks about the bleach in white flour that has been linked to colon cancer. But she can’t make herself take a bite of poison.

The real strength in the book is the development of Clara and Alastair’s relationship. Clara is caring and kind and isn’t quite sure what to make of her sweet, smart and brutally honest young charge. Alastair is adorable. He has sensory issues, allergies to nuts and difficulty with social cues. His over protective mother, Mag, makes him wear orthopedic shoes and carry an adult backpack. Mag wants him to learn to embrace his differences. Clara realizes that kids from school bully Alastair and make fun of his attire. She takes him on a shopping spree and lets Alastair pick out a new back pack and a cool pair of shoes. Clara doesn’t want to change him, just help him fit in. The trust and bond between the two grow as they encourage each other to overcome their fears and differences, and try new things. I admit, Alastair is my favorite character.

Jennifer Gold’s On the Spectrum will captivate readers and transport them to Paris with its Old World charm,  beautiful architecture, café, museums, quaint markets. I loved learning about French cooking, strolls in the parks and Paris at night. The setting and vivid imagery, the characters, and the well-paced plot make for an unforgettable and entertaining experience for readers.

Resources: For more information on orthorexia visit the National Eating Disorder’s Association (NEDA). Orthorexia means an obsession with proper or ‘healthful’ eating. Although being aware of and concerned with the nutritional quality of the food you eat isn’t a problem in and of itself, people with orthorexia become so fixated on so-called ‘healthy eating’ that they actually damage their own well-being. NEDA says that it is on the rise, but it isn’t actually in the diagnostics.

Jennifer Gold is the author of Soldier Doll, a Bank Street Best Book (2015) and White Pine Award finalist (2016), and Undiscovered Country for teens.  She is a lawyer and lives with her family in Toronto.

Greg Pattridge is the permanent host for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

Undiscovered Country by Jennifer Gold

Undiscovered Country

Jennifer Gold, Author

Second Story Press, Fiction, Apr. 4,2017

Suitable for Ages: 13-18

Themes: Grief, Coming of age, South America, Humanitarian work, War, Mental Illness, Ethnic Minorities

Book Jacket Synopsis: You can run from grief, but it will follow…

Cat’s life is divided. There is the time Before her mom died, and After. When her mom got sick, Cat still did her homework and got accepted into a prestigious college, while her father slowly shut down. Now, everything seems meaningless.

Before, Cat was happy and had momentum. After, she feels stuck. And angry. There might be five stages of grief, but Cat can’t get past stage two. She’s so filled with rage, her doctor tries to medicate her. A pill to make her feel like a zombie? No thanks.

When Cat finds a brochure for Students Without Boundaries – a volunteer program that will send her to South America — she grabs it. It’s her escape from the memories of her mother and the reality of her absence. But life as a “voluntourist” is not an escape. The new people and places Cat meets bring new perspectives and challenges she never expected. Life may still have meaning after all.

Why I like this book:

Jennifer Gold has written a compelling coming of age story about Cat, who is trying to find meaning and purpose in her life after the death of her mother. Gold’s story is carefully crafted with skill and depth.

The story is written in first person with alternating chapters. The “Before” story focuses on Cat’s close bond with her mother throughout her battle with cancer and final moments of death. It is powerful and it carries secrets that will give readers insight into Cat’s choices to leave. “After,” shows Cat’s journey to the jungles of South America, the extreme hardships, poverty, violence, and danger she encounters and her important work in the Infirmary. The alternating chapters work because of the strong “Before” storyline.

The characters are authentic and vulnerable. Cat is a strong and convincing character that readers will connect with and like from the start. She knows that doing humanitarian work in of a war-torn country is a way for her to not dwell on her mother’s absence in her life. She meets other volunteers in the program, like Taylor, Margo, and Melody, who are running away from their own demons in a similar manner. Rafael is a local, who captures Cat’s heart. He heads up a local  resistance movement against the corrupt government and makes deals with some dark figures. Cat’s relationship with him is tricky and will challenge her to make grown-up decisions.

Readers will find the plot is courageous with complicated and multi-layered themes I haven’t even mentioned. The jungle setting is so realistic that readers will feel like they are dripping in sweat, slapping huge mosquitoes, and checking their boots every morning for snakes. It is not a safe place to be with danger an ever-present concern.  The tension is palpable and will keep readers engaged.

Jennifer Gold is a lawyer and mother of two. She is the author of the YA novel Soldier Doll. A history buff, she also has degrees in psychology, law, and public health. She lives in Toronto. Visit Gold online at her website.

Check other Middle Grade review links on author Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.

*I was provided with a copy of this book from the publisher in turn for a fair and honest review.