I’ve read three middle grade novels by Cynthia Lord over the past few weeks. She has a very distinctive, gentle style. One that features the concerns of Tweens, no matter how small, and makes them seem extraordinarily important. Of the three I read, HALF A CHANCE will stay with me the longest.
Synopsis of Half a Chance from Lord’s website:
When Lucy’s family moves to an old house on a lake, Lucy tries to see her new home through her camera’s lens, as her father has taught her—he’s a famous photographer, away on a shoot. Will her photos ever meet his high standards? When she discovers that he’s judging a photo contest, Lucy decides to enter anonymously. She wants to find out if her eye for photography is really special—or only good enough.
As she seeks out subjects for her photos, Lucy gets to know Nate, the boy next door. But slowly the camera reveals what Nate doesn’t want to see: his grandmother’s memory is slipping away, and with it much of what he cherishes about his summers on the lake. This summer, Nate will learn about the power of art to show truth. And Lucy will learn how beauty can change lives . . . including her own.
It’s not surprising that this book received a Kirkus starred review. Lord raises important concerns about “losing” a grandparent to dementia, fitting into a new social scene, taking care of the environment, seeking parental approval, lacking self-confidence/self-esteem, and wanting to stop the passage of time so NOW can last forever. All this in a middle grade package.
As another reviewer pointed out, even otherwise happy kids from middle-class families can have complicated feelings, competing desires, and hidden struggles that make their lives more complex than what is initially seen on the surface.
I was invested in Lucy’s (the main character) love of photography and wanting to impress her father with her photos. I was also invested in the life of the loons on the lake.
I was invested in Lucy navigating new friendships as a “third wheel,” and competing for the attention of her new friend, Nate. And I was invested in Grandma Lilah, who has kept track of the loons on the lake summer after summer until this one, because her mind and her body are now failing.
In this story, the children symbolically take on parental roles, protecting Grandma Lilah from physically hurting herself, and from nature’s drama that takes a loon chick’s life. But they discover they can’t really shield her or themselves from the natural world, of which we are all a part.
In the last few pages, Lord ties up several narrative threads, including Lucy finally telling Grandma Lilah about the death of a loon chick in the clutches of an eagle. When Grandma responds,
“I’ve never seen an eagle in real life. Was he beautiful?”
Lucy is shocked. But stammers out a response:
“I guess so. He was horrible and beautiful together.”
And that my friends is an important lesson about nature and life. It is a paradox.
At the very end, when the loons call out to each other, Lucy tries to tell Grandma that they’re telling her hello. But Grandma isn’t buying it.
She shook her head. “They’re telling me good-bye.”
I opened my mouth to say no, but she stopped me.
“Good-bye isn’t the worst thing in the world. Sometimes it’s just time to go.”
At this point, I cried. The emotion of the characters is understated and powerful, but the weight of this highly charged moment is felt deeply due to all that came before.
Folks this is a fantastic book! The only vote that it cannot receive is for diversity, not surprising for a story set in New England when all the “summer people” flock to the lakes.
In addition to HALF A CHANCE, I read BECAUSE OF THE RABBIT (about a home-schooled girl who starts attending a public school and finds that her first friend is a social outcast (he may be autistic, 2019) and A HANDFUL OF STARS (a girl who wants to save her dog from blindness and in the process ends up making friends with the daughter of Latinx migrant blueberry pickers, 2017). These two include descriptive details of French-Canadian heritage that adds cultural depth to the stories. A former teacher and behavior specialist, Lord’s books are engaging, with their well-crafted plot lines, Tween-centric subject matter, and authentic characterization of children with developmental differences. Highly recommended!
Now I want to read RULES (2006), Lord’s Newbery Honor book….