Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z by Kate Messner

Up front, I have to disclose that I know Kate personally, and that she very kindly handed me a signed copy of the ARC for her forthcoming novel when I saw her at the New England SCBWI Conference. You might assume that, with Kate being a friend, I'd be predisposed to want to like her novel, and you'd be correct. You might assume that with her being a friend, if I'm mentioning her novel in a public forum such as this, I'm going to say that I like it.

You'd be wrong.

Because this novel? I love it.

Kate juggles a bundle of fairly heavy plotlines as if they weighed no more than a pile of leaves, managing her story with humor and grace.

Gianna Zales is a middle school cross-country star, a true artist, a good friend, and a bit of a free spirit. Two weeks ago, her science teacher gave the class a month to collect twenty-five leaves from different species of trees, identify them, and put together a visual representation of their distribution. One week from now, it's due. And unless Gianna gets a good grade on her science project, she won't be allowed to run in the cross-country sectionals. Not just that, but the hateful Bianca will run in her place.

Gianna is helped by her good friend Zig, who is starting to show signs of being interested in Gee as a girl, not just as a friend. Gianna is frankly hindered by her family, no matter what they say; I mean, they lecture her on the importance of meeting a Monday sub-deadline on Saturday, while in the car on the way to the Italian market in Montreal. And this isn't the only family obligation that pops up along the way to prevent her from actually doing what they tell her she ought to be doing. I'm just saying. (You will note that Kate must be an excellent writer based on my degree of anger towards Gianna's parents for this whole "say one thing, do another" routine they've got going. Actual anger on the part of a reader about obstacles faced by a character in a book is a surefire sign of good writing.)

Now, Gianna is a cross-country runner, but I have to tell you, the way this book goes, she ought to be a hurdler. There are low hurdles, like the fact that her father's a mortician and that she frequently arrives at school in a hearse, or that her mother's got an unhealthy fixation on health food. And there are mid-sized hurdles, like figuring out what to say to a girl she knows whose grandmother has just died. And there are some really high hurdles indeed, such as the fact that her Nonna is starting to forget things - not just the occasional word or where she left her glasses, but important things, like where she is.

Like a cross-country course after a rain storm, there are an awful lot of puddles to avoid - like Bianca's attempts to belittle Gianna and others, or her efforts to replace Gianna at sectionals. Like unexpected developments with her leaf collection at several turns. Like a bunch of issues with her grandmother and her mother (both separately and together). And like whether she likes the way things are changing with Zig, who was always just a friend before.

And like the happy feeling that rushes through you during and after a cross-country run*, the book is full of warm, happy, funny bits. Gianna's brother, Ian, is hilarious, in spite of (or maybe because of - it's hard to say) his fondness for jokes and paparazzi-like photography. Her friend Ruby is pretty terrific, too. And although there are some sad things about Nonna, when she's on her game, Nonna is a riot - the exact sort of grandmother that pretty much anyone would love to have. She knows when to encourage and when to scold, how to intervene with Mom, how to support Gianna (openly or on the sly), and how to make the very best Italian Wedding Cookies in the world.

Do I love the repeated references to Robert Frost's poem, "Birches"? You know I do. Particularly since the poem is not only referenced and quoted, but also thoughtfully considered and discussed along the way. Also a high point? The references to Gianna's talent for and love of art.

Without being didactic, there are take-home messages about responsibility and the importance of personal expression, about the diversity of nature and the desirability of understanding natural science, about understanding and empathy for others and the true nature of friendship, and about the pitfalls of middle school, something about which Kate possesses and displays intimate knowledge.

Before I go, a word about the book design. I think that Nicole Gastonguay deserves special mention for what she's put together here. Now, I only have an ARC, but I have to assume that the finished copy of the book is going to have that same gorgeous cover image by Joe Cepeda, the same artist who did the lovely cover for Pam Munoz Ryan's Esperanza Rising. And that the right hand edge of each odd-numbered page bears a gray maple leaf, conveniently located at varying locations from top to bottom, top to bottom, so that if you hold the book steady at the spine and thumb the pages, you generate a flip-page animation of a falling leaf. Believe me when I say that this is a) huge fun and b) strangely hypnotic.

Kate's book is due out on September 1st - that's a week from today!

* I am taking that endorphin thing on faith people - you won't catch me actually testing it out.

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Yat-Yee said...

great review. Will wait for it.

Kelly Fineman said...

It's out now!