Friday, December 29, 2023


Wyman, Christina. Jawbreaker 
October 24, 2023 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Max Plink has a lot of problems. First and foremost, she has a severe overbite that isn't responding to the type of braces most tweens wear. Instead, her orthodontist Dr. Watson is talking about possible surgery to realign her jaws, and has her wearing painful headgear (the "jawbreaker") to try to avoid that route. Since her young parents are struggling financially, the cost of the dentistry is impacting the rest of the family economy. This, along with having to go to the appointments, makes Max's younger sister Alexis insufferable. Not only that, but Alexis has aligned herself with students at school who bully Max about her appearance, and continues this abuse at home, where the two fight constantly. There are some good moments, like rare family nights spent with their father when he doesn't have an overnight shift, but lately he's been smelling like beer and less interested in hanging out, and he and Max's mother are fighting more and more. Max also has a refuge at her friend Shrynn's house, where she has a lot of fun spending Friday nights with her friend and her much nicer younger sister Amy, but lately Shrynn seems oddly distant. The two friends do see each other at  their Brooklyn school, where they both work on the school newspaper, and are working on projects for a city wide competition to get a chance to work with journalist Jordan Slade. The bullying doesn't let up at school, Max's teeth don't respond to the headgear as hoped, her parents keep fighting, and she struggles with her contest submission. It's a lot, and there is no reprieve and no one who can help Max through her difficulties. She does have some success with her op ed piece for the school newspaper, which goes viral, and helps teachers  understand that not all students have access to the type and quality of technology that would let them be successful on all of their school assignments. She also has a good idea for the contest; she interviews her orthodontist about the problems she faced that led her to pursue the field. While working on her own project, Max realizes that Shrynn is facing her own problems that she hasn't shared publicly, and that maybe Max hasn't been the best friend that she could be. Max and Alexis continue to have horrible fights (that are similar to those in Davis' 2023 Figure it Out, Henri Weldon), and when Max deliberately ruins Alexis' science fair project, Alexis takes revenge in a very public way. This causes the parents to take a look at everything that is going on in the home and how it is affecting the girls, and make some changes. 
Strengths: Instead of killing off all of the middle grade parents, it's far more interesting to see parents portrayed as not only real, slightly flawed humans but also as people whose actions directly affect the lives of their children! As someone to whom students like to tell their problems, I've heard stories that make Max's parents look like good examples, so this seemed very realistic.  I'd love to see more fully developed parents in middle grade literature, and especially loved how the details of things like having flip phones, dealing with technology challenges (I see this all day, every day at school), and not being able to afford school trips impacted Max and Alexis. It's also refreshing to see a student with dental isssues; as widespread as braces are, Telgemeier's Smile and Haston's 2011 How to Rock Braces and Glasses are about the only books that really go into this. Even writer Beverly Cleary wore braces back in the 1920s, so you'd think it would be addressed much more. I liked that school assignments were big deals in the lives of both Max and Alexis, and that they were depicted as having to share resources to complete them. Alexis even uses her artistic creativity to avoid presenting her project with technology. The end of the book does show some hope for a better emotional path forward for Max's struggling family. 
Weaknesses: While my students seem to love the extreme angst of books like Telgemeier's Sisters (2014) or Smile (2010) or Hale's Best Friends, I personally prefer books that more fully investigate one or two problem rather than giving brief coverage to a lot of problems. I would have liked to know more about the father's drinking or the family's financial difficulties, or even the mother's childhood experiences, but these are all just touched on. Also, I was very surprised that the family got a physical newspaper, given how stretched their finances were. Even I have gone mostly to the digital version, and my students look at the Sunday edition I bring to school with amazement. 
What I really think: The cover makes this look like it might be a graphic novel, but it is not. I'll definitely purchase a copy, even though I have to admit that in 25 years of teaching, I have never seen a student who had to wear headgear to school! 

100% of my own personal children wore braces, although I did not. My children had some extensive dental work involving palette expanders and teeth growing through the roof of the mouth, but NO ONE ever made fun of them fifteen years ago. Things have changed significantly since today's authors were children, and I don't think that braces and glasses are something people tease others about now, and my students have confirmed this. I'm not sure that books like Ogle's Four Eyes will resonate as much with young readers. I'm curious. What do YOUR students think about this?

Ms. Yingling

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