Sunday, June 04, 2023

The Beautiful Something Else

Van Otterloo, Ash. The Beautiful Something Else
May 16, 2023 by Scholastic Press
E ARC Provided by Edelweiss Plus

Sparrow, whose mother calls her Maggie Grace, tries to do well in school and not get in trouble, since her mother is fragile and constantly keeps them on the move. Sparrow has had to take care of her mother, who often works nights or has demanding jobs, and sometimes falls into depression or addictive behaviors like drinking. When her mother is in a car accident because she has overdosed on an opioid, Sparrow ends up with her aunt Mags at her mother's family home, Windy Hall. Lead to believe that this was a fancy house, Sparrow is surprised that Aunt Mags (who started life as the mother's brother, Cameron) and her partner Luca live in a trailer and rent rooms in the house to college students who work on the property, which they call Rainbow Farm. Things start fairly well at Brightbarrel Middle School where Sully and Wynn immediately volunteer to be friends, although Sparrow has a crush on the more traditional Kylie. Sully identifies as asexual, and Wynn is fond of performance art and speaking her truth. Both help Sparrow to define a unique style that includes red "clodhopper" boots and a more nongendered style. After meeting November, one of the students on the farm who uses they/them pronouns, Sparrow starts to crystalize the feeling that a queer, nonbinary identification leaning toward being a boy but not quite, is what is most comfortable. Aunt Mags is certainly sympathetic, as are Wynn and Sully, although Kylie's mother and Kylie herself, who is attracted to Sparrow, don't have any patience for "weird stuff". After finding a teenage journal of her mother's, Sparrow realizes that the mother was abused by her parents, and was never comfortable with her own gay feelings, which may have lead her into addictive behavior as a coping mechanism. Sparrow eventually shares her feelings with her aunt after keeping them bottled up, and dealing with them only as "the Shadows". Will Rainbow Farm end up being a supportive place for not only Sparrow, but Sparrow's mother as well?
Strengths: This was a bit of a change from Van Otterloo's fantasy books, Cattywampus and The Glass Witch, and will appeal to readers who want a more realistic take on young people trying to define their own identities. Windy Hall is an interesting setting, and the Brightbarrell Middle School staff is filled with supportive and understanding teachers who try to help Sparrow. Her mother's addiction problem is one that more and more tweens have to deal with. The clothing and haircuts that Sparrow tries out will make this book an interesting period piece in thirty years! The story moves forward fairly quickly, and has a positive, if not completely happy, ending. (I feel like Sparrow still has a lot of work to do before being comfortable.)
Weaknesses: This book is close to 300 pages, and there are a lot of paragraphs from Sparrow's science related school papers that could have been cut out. I do appreciate the emphasis on science and ecology, but the papers did slow down the narrative a bit. 
What I really think: This is a good choice for readers who liked the diverse, supportive communities in Bunker's Zenobia July or Luckoff's Different Kinds of Fruit
Ms. Yingling

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