A middle school book about a school shooting. With a deft touch.

Is it possible to write a book about a tough topic that still makes you chuckle, wince, and cheer middle school characters on?
I remember the first time I read Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick.  If you haven't read it to your students, you need to!  Sonnenblick takes on a tough topic (cancer) and yet my students and I found ourselves laughing at Stephen and his worries, and Jeffrey's antics, while being moved to tears or silence in other parts of the book.

And that's exactly what Simon Sort of Says does to you, too.

Simon and his family have just moved to Grin and Bear It, Nebraska where the internet is banned - so no cellphones, laptops, or television - because scientists can't have interference as they research outer space. Ostensibly, they moved there so his mother could run a funeral home, but there is another reason, too, which the reader doesn't find out until midway through the book.

Simon appreciates his new anonymity and sets out to make 7th grade a year where he can fly under the radar.  Agate, his new friend, makes sure that his year is anything but quiet.  She's on the autism spectrum and her character is well-developed and refreshing.  Simon's other friend, Kevin, is fleshed out as he struggles to deal with a mom who insists on high achievement all the time.

Erin Bow has done a remarkable job of making each of these characters feel like someone you know, and she does that as well for Simon's parents.  Other characters, less developed, are still entertaining and realistic.  And the peacock?  Don't even get me started!

SPOILER ALERT: Midway through the book, you learn that Simon was the sole survivor of a school shooting in his classroom.  Honestly, up until that point, I believed that his family had moved because of something he had done, so this was quite an unexpected twist for me.  Bow writes honestly about his emotions, the ensuing media frenzy, and how he and his parents cope with this horrific incident.

I'll be honest.  At first, I wondered if some of my students wouldn't get more anxious after reading this book.  But.

But.

The book is surprisingly funny and written with refreshing honesty.  And there are students who need to read this, whether they've experienced some kind of trauma or not.  Students (and adults) will find bits of themselves in the characters in this book, in this strange but quirky town where everyone knows everyone else, and in this heartfelt story about something we read about more often than we'd like.

Special thanks to NetGalley and Disney Hyperion for this eARC in exchange for an honest review.  The book is due to be published on January 31st.

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