Thursday, April 21, 2022

Jennifer Chan is Not Alone

Keller, Tae. Jennifer Chan is Not Alone
April 26th 2022 by Random House
E ARC provided by

The first thing we find out about Jennifer Chan is that she is missing, presumably because she has run away. Mallory and her friends are worried that an interaction they had with her might be the cause of her flight, and are concerned that they might get in trouble. We then go back to the start of it all: there is someone moving into Mallory's Southern Florida neighborhood, and her friends at school are all abuzz-- Jennifer Chan is coming from Chicago, and rumor has it that she killed someone. Or hurt someone, rumors vary. Mallory's mother, who is half Korean, is eager to meet the Chans, who are Chinese American, since there are few other Asians in their area. Mallory isn't thrilled to find out that Jennifer will be attending Gibbons Academy, where she has gone since she was younger, since she can tell that her friends Tess and  Reagan will think the new girl is a little "weird". Jennifer is dealing not only with the move, but the death of her father, with whom she shared an interest in space. Specifically, Jennifer is intersted in space aliens, and thinks that if she finds the right frequency, she will be able to communicate with them. Even while Mallory knows that her friends won't understand, she is oddly draw to both Jennifer and her theories, and helps her investigate. This brings her back in contact with science club members Kath and Ingrid, whom Reagan definitely classifies as "weird". They are reluctant to talk to Mallory since she hangs out with the popular girls, but are also intrigued by Jennifer's ideas. When Jennifer draws the girls further into her alien speculations, she runs afoul of Reagan and the girls have a nasty interchange. Will Mallory be able to figure out where Jennifer is before any harm comes to her? And what's the right thing to do when your friends are being mean to someone else?
Strengths: This has plenty of friend drama, and has some similaries to Walker's Let's Pretend We Never Met; one of the hardest things about middle school is balancing being a kind person and fitting in with others. Students like Jennifer, who are quirky, different, and proud of it, are tough to befriend, because in middle school, "weird" definitely rubs off. This is a great, nuanced discussion of that fine line that needs to be walked, and is based on a pivotal experience from Keller's own tweendom. Mallory likes Jennifer, even though she knows her friends will not approve, and ultimately does the right thing, even though it is a struggle. This is very realistic, and not easy to find in today's middle grade literature. Bullying isn't as simple as it is sometimes portrayed, and this book addresses that very well. I especially appreciated that both girls' Asian American backgrounds come in to play, but are not the entire focus of the story. 
Weaknesses: Jennifer's interests in space aliens went a bit beyond quirky, and as an adult, I worried that she needed some help in the wake of her father's death that she wasn't getting. 
What I really think: This had a bit of the same feel as King's The Year We Fell From Space, with touches of Summy's The Disappearance of Emily H. It's a mystery, but the social interactions are at the forefront of the novel. 

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