Ever since I began creating lists of good books for girls like this one, people have been recommending that I read Lauren Tarshis’ book Emma Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree. I finally got around to it, and I’m so glad that I did. This book now figures among my favorites for upper grade and middle school girls. In fact, this treasure of a book makes me wish I could get in my time machine and go back to my 5th grade classroom so I could ensure that some of the girls in that room received their dose of Emma-Jean.
Alas, I can’t remember where I parked my time machine. Don’t you just hate when that happens?
It’s impossible not to fall in love with Emma-Jean. She’s socially clueless in all the best ways, plus has a great mix of intelligence, curiosity, caring, and precociousness. The character harkens back to Anne of Green Gables and Harriet the Spy – which puts her in rarefied company, indeed.
In this story, Emma-Jean seems to be content with her social circle, which mostly consists of her mother, her teacher, the school janitor, and the grad student who rents out their spare room. She observes and analyzes her peers with a sense of curiosity bordering on fascination, much as a scientist might examine animals in an experiment. But, no matter how curious, she’s content not to be involved in their senseless and often confusing social customs and rituals. Emma-Jean manages to maintain this remove until the day when she encounters a girl named Colleen Pomerantz crying in the bathroom. Because she is a girl who likes to solve a problem, Emma-Jean offers to help solve Colleen’s problem, which has to do with a “mean girl” type who wields so much social power that she scares the girls who surround her into submission and obedience.
Somehow, Tarshis creates a character in Emma-Jean who is naive, but not pitiable. What she lacks in social graces she makes up for with her intellect, honesty, and what Colleen refers to (with awe) as not caring what others think. Tarshis also successfully writes a book for kids that doesn’t feel like it talks down to them. I tend to assume that books for upper grade children will be mostly predictable but, in this case, I found myself wondering how it would all turn out in the end. Would Emma-Jean learn how to have friends her own age? Would Colleen and the others learn from Emma-Jean how to think for themselves?
My only complaint about the story is the character of Emma-Jean’s mother. As a single mother (Emma-Jean’s father died some time before the start of the story), Emma-Jean’s mother never shows an ounce of impatience or frustration. She always knows exactly the right thing to say to soothe her quirky daughter’s doubts and answer her questions. Even when she demonstrates grief over losing her husband – crying just twice a year – it seems a very controlled and reasoned sort of outburst.
As a parent myself, I prefer characters like Colleen Pomerantz’s mother, who almost never knows what to say to her daughter. It’s not that I want to be a clueless parent. It’s just that I know I mostly am. And, like Colleen’s mother, I try very hard even if my efforts are mostly barking up the wrong tree. Ultimately, Colleen’s mother does help her daughter get the guidance and support that she needs, and I thought it very wise of her to know that she could not be the one to provide it.
Tarshis’ first book is an impressive mix of smarts and heart, just like Emma-Jean herself. The book’s sensitivity to the complicated relationships that young people have in middle school, plus the lovely writing and metaphors, make it an easy recommendation for upper grade readers, and it wouldn’t hurt for their parents to read it, either. Sometimes, it’s good to remember.