Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Book Review: So Done by Paula Chase (2018)

Jamila (Mila) and Metai (Tai), who live across the street from each other in a low-income housing project, have been good friends for a long time. Their friendship is strained these days, however, for a variety of reasons. After staying with her aunt in the suburbs for a few weeks, Mila suddenly objects to being called her childhood nickname of Bean and she doesn't want to spend time at Tai's house. Tai, on the other hand, is becoming more and more interested in getting a commitment out of her long-time crush, Rollie, while she also deals with the erratic behavior of her drug-addicted father. Additionally, both girls, and many of their other friends, are interested in auditioning for the new Talented and Gifted (TAG) program, but worry that with so much competition they may not be accepted.

I immediately recognized Paula Chase as the author of the Del Rio Bay Clique series, which I remember ordering for my library back when I was a teen librarian, and which was hugely popular. This book, though written at the middle grade level, is set in the same community, and judging from how well-written it is, it is also likely to be very popular. 

So many middle grade friendship stories are set against very generic middle class backgrounds where all the characters talk, act, think, and sound the same. This book, by contrast, makes great use of slang and local color to make the characters sound real and authentic, and  develops its setting in such a way that it is not just the backdrop of the story, but an integral part of the way the plot unfolds. Despite the fact that I wasn't familiar with a lot of the slang or subject matter, I was completely drawn into this world and fully invested in the well-being of both girls and in their hopes for getting into TAG. I can imagine that kids who do get the cultural references will be that much more immersed in the story.

There is some mature subject matter in this book that definitely places it at the higher end of the middle grade spectrum. Both Tai and Mila have parents who use drugs, and though it is never explicitly stated, it is clear that Tai's mom and dad were teen parents. There is also a troubling incident involving Mila and Tai's father, which, while handled gracefully by the author, with a clear-cut resolution, might be too much for some readers, especially those who are used to lighter friendship books. For that reason, I think of it as more appropriate for middle school than elementary school readers. Still, there are plenty of positive role models in the story, and the overall focus is on hope and healing, not on darkness and despair, as is fitting for a middle grade novel. 

So Done is yet another wonderful 2018 middle grade book (there are so many good ones this year so far!) and certainly a strong middle grade debut for Paula Chase. I'd be happy to see more books like this one in the years to come! (Thanks to Edelweiss for the digital review copy!)

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