Happy Thursday, Reading Nook!
Today, I'm reviewing the lovely and thoughtful My Life in Dioramas by Tara Altebrando.
It's a profound, thoughtful tale discussing the challenges of moving away from everything that has rooted you, and how to make the most of your memories as you prepare for the future.
Hardcover, 256 pages
Published April 28th 2015 by Running Press Kids
Kate has not even moved yet, and already her life is changing in unwelcome ways. Every moment and memory seems fleeting. Making dioramas of the people she loves in the places that she holds dear gives Kate a sense of calm. But there’s no way Kate is going to move now, when her dance troupe is finally going to compete at Dance Nation, and her best friend is starting to replace her with her enemy, Megan. It may take several bags of stink, the help of her friends, and a few fake dogs in order for her to be able to keep her life the way that she knows and loves it.
The answer? Not always well. But Tara Altebrando thoughtfully explores the truths and challenges behind why moving is difficult, and has transformed that into a touching story about Kate's loss and discovery.
Things that worked:
From the start, it's impossible not to love Kate. She's not necesarily the most popular girl in school, but she's spunky, imaginative, and we can easily see how she fits perfectly into her quiet life at Big Red.
So when Kate finds out that she's on the verge of losing her beloved home, we can easily understand why she would do whatever she can to stay there. Altebrando shows us just how her schemes - as hairbrained and gross as some of them are - are all borne from a place of genuine fear of the unknown, which makes us feel all the more sympathetic.
But outside of Kate's plotting, Altebrando does a fantastic job of showing us just how Kate grows throughout the course of the novel. We see how the knowledge of her move, coupled with the subsequent impact on her life - the scheming; changes to her friends and her dance classes, and family problems alike; all help her learn and mature enough to start coping with this major transition in her life.
As a part of the aforementioned emotional development, Altebrando has Kate make dioramas throughout the novel, depicting rooms throughout Big Red.
While the activity is definitely cathartic for Kate and her parents, it also serves a greater purpose for the overall narrative. Altebrando is clearly showing how Kate finds a way to work through her complicated feelings about moving, which is both healthy and cathartic.
I think this is the first time I've read a middle grade novel where the main character does put her emotions into something tangible like this, and I definitely appreciated how notable this was.
A Life in Dioramas is a quiet novel, and it's reflected well in Altebrando's scenery and writing. She builds up a quiet, sleepy world around Kate and her family, and it's easy to see why Kate's reluctant to even consider leaving that life.
I loved the fact that Kate wasn't a specific standout in any respect, but just someone who had a nice life with friends, Big Red and her dance classes. I also appreciated the fact that Kate's parents were fairly atypical for MG - the fact that Altebrando depicted them as clearly financially struggling, and trying to make ends meet - is a nice, realistic nod toward the families of today.
As for the writing, Altebrando has always impressed me with her strong, clear voice, and it came across well in Dioramas.
Friends play a huge part in Dioramas, ranging from Kate's best friend struggling with the idea of her leaving (and also acting out about it negatively), to Kate's burgeoning friendship with Naveen.
Kate's growth and challenges as a result of these friendships were a nice reminder of what it means to be twelve, and how it's these friendships that help us begin to take that path on who we're meant to be.
The realistic potrayal of family relationships
Altebrando makes it a point to include a subplot involving Kate's parents struggling with having to sell their home, and how it impacts their relationship with one another.
While the subplot was a bit darker than I was used to for middle grade, I absolutely appreciated the realism of those interactions. Altebrando doesn't hesitate to show us how parents fighting can be stressful, but also the importance of communicating even when family members may not be getting along. It's an important lesson to convey, especially for younger readers who may be experiencing similar situations.
And on a related note...
A nod to the more profound issues
While Altebrando doesn't explore this in-depth, she does make it a point to acknowledge the fact that Kate's mother is suffering from depression as a result of losing her home. Altebrando skillfully shows how the depression impacts Kate and her father, and how her mother makes it a point to acknowledge her struggles and seeks help.
It's subtle, but there's a powerful underlying message on recognizing the importance of accepting a person's limitations and recognzing that it is okay to ask for help.
Altebrando has written a pitch-perfect, optimistic ending which made me tear up a little. Without giving spoilers away, it's an ending that's full of sincerity and generosity, and will likely make readers smile.
Things that didn't work/Things to consider:
Although I really enjoyed Altebrando's writing, I did think that the main character came across as a bit morose and whiny at times.
While I completely understand Kate's attitude - it's incredibly hard moving, and dude, I totally put up a big stink about my parents selling my childhood home in my 20s! - I'm not sure how this tone may reflect on a younger reader, especially one who may also be in Kate's position. Will they appreciate the fact that Kate is very candid on how down she is? Or will they be turned off by her general lack of optimism. and overlook the tacit message of learning how to make the best of a tough situation?
While I'm still not entirely sure how Kate's attitude may necessarily reflect on younger readers - will they appreciate Kate's slightly morose candor? - I do think that this is an important, realistic book on how to deal with obstacles in life, and how to find the silver lining in every obstacle, and to celebrate the moments that you've had.
I recommend this book for all fans of contemporary fiction, with the caveat that younger readers will likely have questions about Kate and her family after reading.
About the author:
Tara Altebrando is the author of several novels, including The Battle of Darcy Lane, The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life and Dreamland Social Club (a Kirkus Reviews Best Book for Teens of 2011). She is also the co-author of Roomies with Sara Zarr. Tara is a Harvard grad living in Astoria, New York, with her husband and two daughters.