Friday, June 20, 2008
What is "normal"? That is the question that the main character, Mieka, tries to answer in Chasing Normal by Lisa Papademetriou.
When I saw this book on the "new book" shelf at my local public library, I at first thought of all the connections I would most likely make to Waiting for Normal (reviewed here by Bill), and actually wondered if some of the same territory might be covered in each book. I was so delighted to realize that this book holds its own. Although, I absolutely loved WFN, Chasing Normal is actually a more accessible book to 4th and 5th graders. There is one scene that involves Mieka getting her period at a camp during some water challenges, and the difficulties that presented, but that's as PG as this book gets.
Mieka, the main chararcter, lives in NYC with her artist dad. Mieka's mom jumped ship a long time ago, leaving her family behind. Mieka and her dad live a very bohemian lifestyle which seems to suit both of them. Mieka's one grandmother (her mom's mom) is a huge part of their life as well. The main plot of this story revolves around the phone call that Mieka's dad gets from his sister, telling him his estranged mother is very ill. This news results in Mieka and her dad traveling to Houston, Texas (home of Mieka's aunt, uncle, 2 cousins, and other grandmother) to stay with their relatives for a short visit while also spending time with Mieka's grandmother / Dad's mom.
All of these characters might sound confusing, but what it really comes down to is this -- the life Mieka's relatives in Houston live is lightyears different than the life Mieka and her dad live back in NYC. Mieka's aunt, Kate, is meticulously neat with her fancy designer home; Mieka and her dad live in a little bit of chaos (they even have been known to call some of their furniture "Salvation Armani").
So Mieka is left to wonder, what is "normal"? Is "normal" living happily in New York with your father in a very disheveled apartment, with hodge-podge furniture? Or is "normal" a large surburban house in Houson, complete with swimming pool, and brand new furniture in every room? Is "normal" buying your clothes at thrift shops, never concerned about style? Or is "normal" a big shopping trip with your aunt and cousin where money is no object and nice clothes are a must? Is "normal" having your family be just you and your dad? Or is "normal" a dad, a mom, a brother, and a sister family group all living under one roof? The list goes on and on.
I think most of us wander through life redefining our own forms of "normal" as we go, but in Chasing Normal, it is a flashback to those teenage years, full of angst -- trying to define what our identities truly were.
Mieka is a character Lisa Papademetriou really makes us care about. Her exploits as she tries to fit in in her new setting are sometimes amusing, sometimes sad, and sometimes confusing, but all of them are easy to relate to. The ill grandmother in Texas is NOT at all likeable, not even a little bit. It's been a while since I've read a children's book where I just wanted to deck a character, even one as ill and elderly as Mieka's grandmother. The rest of the characters are well done and important to the plot, especially Mieka's female cousin, Greta. I especially like Greta because she is the poster child for the fact that you can appear to have everything (friends, clothes, material things) and still not be happy. Greta might be the biggest influence in helping Mieka find out for herself what "normal" is.
Chasing Normal is a wonderful book that I can't wait to put into the hands of the right readers next year! Since I teach in a school that is predominantly similar to the Texas relatives' lives, this book could bring good perspective to students in my school about other kinds of "normal".