The Encyclopedia of Me by Karen Rivers is the story of twelve year old Isadora Aaron-Martin, a.k.a. Tink, youngest child and only daughter of an obstetrician mother and a plumber father. She has older twin brothers named Seb and Lex, who are identical in every way except for that Seb is autistic and Lex isn’t. Her family is of mixed ethnicity. She sets out to write an encylopedia during the summer before her eighth grade year because she is grounded and she enjoys writing. Of course, this isn’t a knock-off Britannica; it’s an “encyclopedia of me,” so each entry relates somehow, however convolutedly, back to Tink’s life. In many ways, Tink’s life is stereotypical of many adolescents’ lives–she feels misunderstood by her parents, she has a love-hate relationship with her older brothers, and she adores her best friend, Freddie Blue. In other ways, she’s not stereotypical–she considers herself the “ugly duckling” of the family because her mother is drop-dead gorgeous (in addition to being a doctor, naturally) and her brothers are handsome enough to have scored a shot in a Gap commercial. Her brother Seb’s autism makes her life a bit unusual, too. She also attends a school for gifted children, and obviously, Tink’s gifting is with words. She loves to write and does so very well in ways that make her make her self-aware beyond her years. Much of her life almost seems too good to be true, and yet, it is also marked by self-doubt and imperfections.
I’m writing this review with a split personality of sorts. First, I’m writing as a book reviewer, an English teacher, and a librarian. From that person The Encyclopedia of Me by Karen Rivers gets a nod as a middle grade book that’s very unique in both its format and how unexpectedly well the format translates into a novel. Tink is smart and slightly sarcastic and intuitive and naive. She loves her family but often feels put-upon because of the allowances made for Seb and his autism. She adores her best friend but also knows that the times, they are a-changin’. She wants a boyfriend but isn’t really sure what that means, until the a new kid moves in next door and (predictably?) widens the chasm between her and Freddie Blue. She is beginning to feel comfortable in her own skin and realizes that a.) she doesn’t want to be a ballerina like her mother and b.) she isn’t interested in beings “pops” (popular–Freddie Blue and Tink have created their own lexicon) at any cost like Freddie Blue and c.) the weird kid who skateboards and isn’t worried about being “pops” might make a pretty good new BFF. Karen Rivers hits this one out of the park when it comes to Tink’s voice. She sounds like a twelve year old, albeit a highly literate and articulate one:
My heart broke into a billion shards, which shot around my body in my veins and arteries, stabbing me everywhere at once, like a zillion bee stings. (179)
That’s not even the best example, but the one I really want to share would require too much explanation and be too much of a spoiler. Rivers also gets the best friend/frenemy situation down well, with Freddie Blue growing less and less likeable as the story progresses. (Or maybe it’s just that Tink finally notices–either way, by the end of the story, Freddie B. is really hard to like.) I found this story very original, despite both the stereotypes and the too-good-to-be-true life, thanks to Tink’s voice.
The other personality writing this review, the mother, has to offer a disclaimer: I just don’t think I’d want my girls reading this as middle graders. Sure, there are much, much, much worse things they could read; in fact, in terms of content, this one is pretty mild. However, it’s heavy on the boyfriend factor, and there’s a good bit of kissing. Yes, Tink is still relatively naive. No, there’s nothing beyond kissing. Yes, I know girls this age often have boyfriends. I am well aware of all of that. As a parent, though, I truly believe in the “better late than early” principle when it comes to boy-girl relations and romance in general. I get that many readers are of the opinion that it’s better to experience things vicariously through books than experiment with them in real life. However, I also think that sometimes reading about something like this (and perhaps a host of other things) opens doors best left closed for now. There’s a bit of spiritual wandering in this book, too; Tink’s mother is a Buddhist, but Tink’s not sure what she believes. There’s nothing definitive at all about anything religious, but Buddhism is really the only religion mentioned. To be sure, I’m also writing this as the mother of a voracious and somewhat precocious reader for whom I am having trouble finding age-appropriate books, so perhaps I am projecting a bit and rejecting it as a selection for my very young daughter. I’m sure I’ll have many opportunities to revisit this question as my children mature. It’s a personal quibble, maybe, but one that I know my blog readers will appreciate knowing about.
And that, my friends, is why I usually steer clear of young adult literature. (And no, this one is not marketed as young adult, but I have a hard time thinking of it as a middle grade novel myself. At the very least, it is story for very old middle graders.) I’m just way too conflicted about it to write anything definitive. I still think this one will be popular among girls who read new fiction, and I think it’s enough of a departure from the norm and well-done enough that I nominated it for a Cybils in the middle grade fiction category.
I told you I was conflicted. 🙂
(Arthur A. Levine Books, 2012)