Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. by Kate Messner

Publisher: Walker Publishing Co., 2009
Pages: 195
Reading Level: Ages 9 to 12 years

Over the years, I have shifted my reading preferences from more realistic fiction to fantasy fiction and suspense. Much of this switch can be attributed to working in a field where I deal with the harshness of reality on a daily basis. When I do find time for pleasure reading, I want to simply escape. However, after starting a book club for 4th-6th graders, I realized that I would be remiss if the only novels I recommended were part of the fantasy and science fiction genre.

I was attracted to Kate Messner’s The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. for several reasons. First, Messner is a middle school teacher. As an educator, I want to be able to encourage and support teachers who are writers. Second, though I currently live in Southern California, I grew up in New England and the story is set in the fall in Vermont. Third, I was looking for a realistic fiction story to share with my students in our book club.

Gianna (“Gee”) is a twelve year old girl who would rather be drawing pictures, or running trails than doing homework. The story opens with Gianna needing to finish a science project by the end of the week. Her ability to compete in the upcoming Sectionals for cross-country hinges on her ability to complete the project on time and obtain a passing grade. It appears that nearly everyone has been working on this science project for the past three weeks except for Gianna. With the support of her best friend Zig, Gee believes that she will be able to finish the task and then compete in Sectionals. However, as most of us know, real life can trip us up on the way to the finish line. Not only does Gee have to deal her archenemy, Bianca, trying to sabotage her efforts, but there are unexpected challenges at home that continue to interfere with Gee's reaching her goals.

Messner does a phenomenal job in making Gee, her friends, school and home life seem real. In many ways, Gee is a typical middle schooler who struggles with her school work, with budding emotions for her male best friend, and with the transformation of her family life due to her grandmother’s failing memory. Without giving too much of the story away, Gee’s quest to find 25 leaves and assemble them into a display for her science teacher becomes the metaphor for all of the changes and challenges that she is facing.

I loved the tender and fragile relationship between Gee and her grandmother. And as a teacher, I recognized in Gianna so many of my own students who struggle to attend and to conform to the system and structure called school. My only criticism was that Gianna’s perspective often times seemed more mature than I would expect from a 12 year old who leaned more towards being a creative free-spirit than the “I’ve had to grow up too fast” type of kid. Much of Gianna’s reactions and dialogue seemed fairly aligned with her character’s persona, but at times the narration which was from Gianna’s point of view seemed more adult like. However, I don’t believe that it takes away from the story and I would recommend the book to children and adults, especially for children who are dealing with a close family member whose health concerns are impacting the lives of other the family members.

Enjoy the fall, and find time to read a book…

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