Vikki VanSickle’s debut Middle Grade novel, Words That Start With B is a feel-good story. It might surprise you to learn then, that two of the most central “B Words” in the novel are Breast Cancer and bullying. But VanSickle manages these heavy issues with a delicate hand, making her novel into a heart-warming and incredibly true-to-life story of one girl’s unexpected grade seven year. You’ll be charmed.
For Clarissa Delaney, grade seven was supposed to be her year, but she’s about to find out that sometimes, when you feel the most sure about how things are going to go, the universe has an entirely different plan for you. Every year she’s spent at Ferndale Public School she’s been anticipating the year she’ll be in 7B, Miss Ross’s class. Miss Ross is the teacher all kids dream of getting. Her class does the coolest projects and Miss Ross is so interesting. On top of this, Clarissa had an experience with Miss Ross way back in grade three that made her feel she was destined to be in Miss Ross’s class, and that Miss Ross really understood her. On the first day of grade seven, when a new teacher takes over 7B, Clarissa starts learning that you can’t predict what life will bring to you. This lesson is one that she keeps on having to learn throughout the year that she had been anticipating forever. She finds that not all surprises are bad, and even the ones that are heart-breakers, sometimes have hidden blessings.
This is a sweet book. You feel like you’ve been dropped into Clarissa’s world, her home and family and community. Clarissa is sassy and sometimes difficult, which is entirely believable. Her best friend Benji is a sweetheart. He’s quirky and sensitive. I would happily read a whole book about Benji. I enjoyed the short chapters. They felt a little like vignettes, each one starting with a “B” word, which was clever, but not contrived. Sometimes I find that short chapters don’t always have as great an impact, but not so here. Each one felt crafted and purposeful.
Words that Start With B is going to be just right for a tween who loves a story about the real world, but who might not be ready for something too intense. It’s a great bridge to realistic YA. Certainly there are heavier aspects to VanSickle’s novel, that would bear discussing in a book club, or just in conversations between moms and daughters. Clarissa’s friend Benji experiences severe bullying, to the point where he is attacked by a kid and ends up needing treatment in hospital for his injuries. Clarissa has to face the uncertain reality of being the child of a cancer patient. I liked that Vikki didn’t sugar-coat this, making it clear that Clarissa didn’t know how things were ultimately going to turn out, and she had to live with that. The novel is about family, hope, accepting life’s imperfections, and appreciating the good in what you have even when things aren’t easy.
Bring on a sequel! More Words That Start With B?
Good news: Words that Start With B happens to be nominated for a Cybils Award this year in the MG fiction category.
Words That Start With B is published by Scholastic Canada.