Happy New Year's Eve!
Today, I'm reviewing one of my favorite contemporary books of 2016 - yep, I'm calling it already - Up to This Pointe.
Jennifer Longo takes readers on a journey to Antarctica, where one girl learns how to reconcile her changed plans for a dance career, with a different future.
Expected publication: January 19th 2016 by Random House Books for Young Readers
Format read: E-ARC via publisher
She had a plan. It went south.
Harper is a dancer. She and her best friend, Kate, have one goal: becoming professional ballerinas. And Harper won’t let anything—or anyone—get in the way of The Plan, not even the boy she and Kate are both drawn to.
Harper is a Scott. She’s related to Robert Falcon Scott, the explorer who died racing Amundsen and Shackleton to the South Pole. So when Harper’s life takes an unexpected turn, she finagles (read: lies) her way to the icy dark of McMurdo Station…in Antarctica. Extreme, but somehow fitting—apparently she has always been in the dark, dancing on ice this whole time. And no one warned her. Not her family, not her best friend, not even the boy who has somehow found a way into her heart. It will take a visit from Shackleton’s ghost—the explorer who didn’t make it to the South Pole, but who got all of his men out alive—to teach Harper that success isn’t always what’s important, sometimes it’s more important to learn how to fail successfully.
However, I still came away surprised by just how moved I was by the book. As a former dancer myself, I felt a total kinship to Harper's struggles to want to prove herself and her burgeoning understanding that perhaps there are different options in life.
Things that worked:
From the moment we first meet Harper, we already know that she's about to experience a dramatic change in her life. We're first introduced to her as she arrives in Antarctica, and we already know the reason why.
So as the book jumps backward in time and shows how Harper came to lose her once clear path to a life in dance, it's easy to immediately empathize with everything Harper's experiencing.
But rather than make her into a pitiful, mopey heroine, Longo is careful to flesh-out her main character, by adding the additional pressure of carrying the legacy of her storied ancestor explorer Robert Falcon Scott, and her own sky-high expectations for herself.
Consequently, it's not surprising that Harper occasionally acts bratty or has tunnel vision, and older readers will likely both recognize similar stressors from their own teenaged years, while younger readers will appreciate Harper's strength in picking an unconventional solution to her problems, and continue to root for her to find a happy medium for herself.
The relationship factor
While dance can be a very singularly sport, Longo provides Harper with a support system in the form of both friends and family.
It's reassuring to see how many people have Harper's back, but it's also painful to see how Harper turns away from them in her singular pursuit of dance. Longo gently allows Harper the dignity of grieving in private after arriving in Antarctica, but also gradually begins to have her realize the substantial wisdom and loyalty that many of Harper's friends and family have shown to her, as she's tried to figure things out.
At the risk of sounding clichéd, Harper's gradual recognition that her friends and family can offer some much-needed wisdom and input into her life, is a very thoughtful and adult lesson that many younger readers are probably working to learn themselves right now. It's a great lesson, and I appreciate Longo all the more for having incorporated it.
Look, it's a book set in Antarctica. You can't go wrong.
But on a more profound level, Longo's setting is a brilliant reminder of just the strength of the human character, especially when placed in challenging locations. It's the application of Harper's dance-honed strength and determination in a different way, and absolutely intriguing to read.
The romance factor
This is definitely one of those situations where I don't want to give too much away, but I will say: Longo writes a smart, healthy romance.
This isn't a relationship that Harper latches onto as an emotional substitute, but rather one that develops over time, and through growing trust. It's genuine like - possibly love - and I love that it's a healthy example for all young readers.
The dance factor
Pre-Antarctica Harper appears to have the mindset that no one can ever understand the passion or determination that she has for dance. It's all-consuming, and dominates every aspect of her life.
As someone who was once in her (pointe) shoes, I absolutely understood this all-consuming passion. But that's why I also appreciated Longo's gentle recognition that it is possible to have similar levels of passion for other things in life, as Harper learns when she meets her Antarctica colleagues. Her recognition of that, and her recognition that she can actually apply her own focus and determination into something new, is a nice acknowledgement that passions and plans can be adjusted.
The deeper issues
One of the most painful parts of Up to This Pointe, is when Harper is confronted by someone whose opinion she values, on the reality of a life in dance.
It's not easy coming to terms with the end of a lifelong dream, but Longo is careful to show that the support system in Harper's life is sincere in wanting her to succeed, and wanting to help her figure out what she wants, even if it means packing her off to the Antarctica for half a year.
While it's easy to categorize this as a trust-those-around-you or grown-ups-know-best lesson, the fact that Longo shows Harper initially rejecting the most obvious alternative, and paving a path of her own, helps emphasize the idea that it's okay to explore and make mistakes, before you do settle on a path.
Harper's growth as she does so, will likely resonate with many a teen who has felt conflicted by similar circumstances.
Longo's ending is pitch-perfect. She emphasizes Harper's willingness to accept the realities of her dance capabilities, but also shows her growth in how she chooses to continue to celebrate her love of dance, but also for her pursuit of the newfound interests in her life.
It's a smart ending, and a realistic one. I can only hope that readers will take Harper's journey and choices to heart.
Things that didn't work/Things to consider:
While I thought that every aspect of Up to This Pointe was beautifully written and true to life, I do think that some readers may find it hard to reconcile Harper's choices in the earlier half of the novel.
Harper is so desperate to prove her worth when it comes to dance, she engages in behavior that borders on self-harm - e.g. anorexia.
Though Longo is very careful to show the ramifications of such behavior, it's something that parents and educators may want to engage with readers about. There is definitely room for discussing how ambition/pressure can sometimes lead people to take on destructive behavior, and alternative coping mechanisms.
It's not an easy journey by any means, and Longo is especially adept at showing Harper's failures, and her ability to pick herself back up after she falls. The fact that Harper makes the majority of these strides in her arctic setting, and is also inspired by sage advice from an unexpected source, makes the journey an even more compelling and readable one.
I highly, highly recommend for fans of Gayle Forman and Huntley Fitzpatrick. Longo proves that she gets better and better with each novel, and this is one you won't want to miss.
About the author:
JENNIFER LONGO was a ballerina from ages eight to eighteen, until she eventually (reluctantly) admitted her talent for writing exceeded her talent for dance. The author of Six Feet Over It, she holds an MFA in Writing for Theater from Humboldt State University, where her obsessive love of Antarctica produced her thesis play about Antarctica’s Age of Exploration. Jennifer lives in Seattle with her husband and daughter and writes about writing at jenlongo.com.