Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis
Deza Malone is one of the smartest girls in her class. That's why she is confused when her teacher gives her a second place on her English essay. But Deza's teacher knows that the life of any child in 1936 is going to be difficult. When her father is injured in a boating accident, the already struggling family is forced to make many changes that require Deza to see the world as it is. Always tenacious, Deza refuses to give up on her dreams or her family.
With the backdrop of the Great Depression, Curtis' newest novel paints a vivid picture of a struggling family in the 1930's. There is Deza's brother, Jimmie, who has quit growing due to lack of adequate food and nutrition. Her mother, whose clothes hang off her. And her father, whose efforts to obtain a job have proven fruitless and have forced him to travel further and further away in search of work and self-respect. Eventually Deza's family is forced to move, finding a home in a transient camp, a place full of people whose lives have been just as touched by the economic disaster as the Malones.
The thing that makes this story so endearing though is Deza's resilience despite all of this. She is aware of their difficulties, yet as all children do, she can see past this. Her teeth may be rotting in her head, but Deza powers through, concerned only for her family and her schoolwork. She never complains about her teeth even though they hurt excruciatingly. Deza's insatiable need to learn and love and see the best of any situation makes her easy to follow through this terrible ordeal.
Admittedly, there were times when I wondered if she was a little too innocent, a little too naive. One wonders if a twelve-year-old would truly be so self-absorbed and out of touch with what was going, but perhaps Curtis was attempting to capture some of the innocence that seemed to last longer all those decades ago. Luckily, Deza does grow and change and that innocence does begin to fall away a bit, leaving a much wiser little girl in her stead.
As in many middle grade books, I think there is a lesson to be learned here, but the story is by no means didactic. The lesson is simple, take nothing for granted. From your teeth, to your clothes, to your shoes. Appreciate everything, but most of all your family. No matter what happens to the Malones, no matter what they are forced to leave behind, their love and humor is what keeps them going. A wonderful book to be added to the historical fiction genre.