By Kody Keplinger
Available now from Scholastic Press
When I was in the third or fourth grade, we read THE CAT ATE MY GYMSUIT by Paula Danziger. I enjoyed the book, but was happy that I didn't have to worry about my parents divorcing. It seemed like such a terrible thing, especially since I didn't know anyone with divorced parents. By the time I was twelve, my parents were divorced and I lived in a new city where most of my friends had single parents for one reason or another. It was a whole new world, but one that was easier with other people who had experienced the same thing and the memory of reading that one book in school.
It is not divorce that breaks the Swift family apart. (Not initially, anyway.) It is the father leaving in the night without even a goodbye. The mother sinks into depression and the three boys react in different ways. Brian, the oldest, tries to be responsible even though it is too much to handle alone for a boy. Kevin, the youngest, goes silent. Canaan, the middle child and Nola's best friend, gets angry. The fact that their turbulence is viewed through Nola's eyes allows THE SWIFT BOYS & ME to be much lighter than it might have been through one of the boy's eyes.
Nola has lived next door to the Swift boys her entire life. This is the first summer she hasn't spent palling around with them, and it leaves her a bit adrift. I really, really loved how Kody Keplinger tackled the friendship between Nola and Canaan. I wish I'd been exposed to more stories about friendships that become toxic. Nola makes allowances for Canaan's behavior, which is completely reasonable, but she also determines where she draws the line about how mean he can be, especially if he doesn't apologize. And, as Nola ventures out on her own, she starts to discover opportunities for friendship and other connections that she was previously closed off to.
I thoroughly enjoy Keplinger's YA books, but I was worried about how her voice would work in an MG novel. He previous works are very much upper YA. THE SWIFT BOYS & ME has a cadence that's very Southern and comforting, a cross between Kathi Appelt and Joan Bauer. It keeps Keplinger's humor and directness, but softens it for the audience. (I will mention that one scene that might have encouraged my mind to leap to Appelt involves animal abuse. The animal survives without serious injury.)
I do with that the cover of THE SWIFT BOYS & ME had a chubby girl on the cover, since that is how Nola is routinely described. Based on the way different characters describe her, I assume that she isn't that chubby, but she's definitely not the skinny girl on the cover. That's sad, because I feel like Nola is the type of bigger heroine many readers are looking for - one who doesn't lose weight over the course of the novel.
THE SWIFT BOYS & ME is a summer read that tackles growing up, growing apart, and growing together with sympathy and delight. There are some dark moments, but Nola always fights her way back to the light. She's a strong little girl, and it's easy to imagine her growing up to have a wonderful life after the book ends.