Monday, April 27, 2015

Book Review: My Life in Dioramas by Tara Altebrando (2015)

In her second middle grade novel, Tara Altebrando introduces Kate Marino, a middle schooler who loves living in her family home, known as Big Red. When she learns that her parents' financial situation is going to require them to sell the house, and that they don't even know where they will be moving, she is devastated. Her sadness deepens when she learns that her dance class will be participating in a competition in June, and she may not be able to participate. Determined to prolong the sale of the house until the competition is over, Kate (with help from her good friend Naveen) attempts to sabotage the real estate agent's hard work by planting disgusting smells and annoying sounds all around the house to scare off potential buyers.

Much like Altebrando's middle grade debut, The Battle of Darcy Lane, this is a gentle read for middle school girls who enjoy themes of friendship and family, and who are most concerned with the emotional ups and downs of everyday life. Readers can easily sympathize with Kate's desire to remain in the home she has always known, and even if they would not go to Kate's lengths to be allowed to do so, they will certainly understand her motivations, and maybe even wish they had Kate's guts. Unlike other middle grade novels of sabotage (e.g. Revenge of the Flower Girls, The Great Greene Heist), this one keeps the pranks on a small scale and therefore seems fairly believable. The fact that Kate eventually gets caught also keeps this story from becoming too far-fetched.

Another strong element of this book is the subtlety of the growing tension between Kate and her best friend, Stella. As she demonstrated in The Battle of Darcy Lane, Altebrando has a great grasp on the politics of middle school friendship, and she works that into this plot in a way that is very true to life. Kate and Stella never have a real out-and-out fight with drama and tears and hurt feelings. Rather, the conflicts between them are woven into the fabric of their interactions with one another, resulting in a mix of moments where they get along fine and moments where they are on totally different wavelengths. This is a much more authentic representation of female friendship than some of the cattier books for this reading level might suggest.

Also wonderful is the way Kate channels her emotions into making dioramas of the rooms in her house. This is a great way to highlight Kate's love for her house in a concrete way and also to help the reader fall in love with the house so that its loss weighs as heavily on the reader as it does on the protagonist. The fact that Kate is able to preserve her memories in the form of dioramas also contributes to the story's overall hopeful outlook on a difficult situation, which is sure to resonate strongly with girls ages 9-13.

Two final notes. I was thrilled, just on a personal level, to learn that this book is set in the Hudson Valley region of New York State. Reading about places like Highland, Poughkeepsie, Rosendale, and New Paltz took me right back to my own childhood growing up in the same area. (I have compiled other middle grade novels set in upstate New York here.)  I was disappointed, though, by the cover, which is very dark and difficult to appreciate at a glance. The lettering of the title and the little greenish lights floating in the air also suggest that the story might be science fiction, rather than contemporary realism, which might draw in an audience that is not ultimately interested in reading the book. I just hope librarians who buy this book will be prepared to give it a great booktalk, as I am sure there are plenty of readers just waiting for a book just like this to come along. (If I were eleven years old, I'd be one of them!)


  1. I just finished this one, too and should have a review up next week. I agree 100% with your thoughts. Moving is such a real issue for many kids. Very emotional if you've lived in one place for a long time. Thanks for your review.

  2. I really like books about friendship, and I'm drawn in by what you said about this being a more realistic portrayal than we typically see. I also think the dioramas sound intriguing!
    Thanks for the review!

  3. It's nice to hear of realistic situations that kids can relate to. Thanks for this review. I'll be looking for this book.