Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z.

I love when I find a book that I haven't heard of before and am drawn in by something, the cover art, the description on the cover, a great title or an interesting author bio. In this case the title, cover and bio drew me in. I had not seen this title anywhere or heard of it's author, Kate Messner, but when I read that she is a middle school teacher, I was ready to read.

I found The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. on the new book shelf at the local branch of my public library and the fall colors of the cover caught my eye. When I picked it up and read the flap I knew I was checking it out and taking it with me. The description includes a grandma who leaves her false teeth in the fridge, a father that drives a hearse, a monster science project and a middle school arch nemesis and I couldn't wait to read some details about each.

Turns out that Gianna is a student who really struggle with organization, we've all had them, heck, I probably was one of them! She has been assigned the dreaded leaf collection project, you know the one, collect 25 leaves, label them with their scientific name, common name and where they can be found, all presented in a creative and organized fashion.

Luckily for her she has a really good friend who happens to be a boy who is gifted and organized and helpful. Unluckily (is that a word?) for her she also has an arch nemesis, a mean girl who is trying to take her place at the sectional cross country meet. Gianna must finish the project on time, or the mean girl will take her place. The mean girl, Bianca, is that the perfect mean girl name or what? (sorry to any Biancas currently reading this) will stop at nothing to help Gianna fail, including completely destroying the project the week it's due.

In addition to the trials and tribulations of middle school Gianna is dealing with home issues too. Her family runs the town funeral home and occasionally her father takes her to school in the hearse, I personally think this would be pretty cool, but Gianna is mortified and it's only fodder for more harassment from Bianca.

Gianna's Italian grandmother lives with them and is beginning to show early signs of Alzheimer's. At one point in the story she wonders off and is missing for a significant amount of time. Gianna and her friends search the neighborhood in a fall thunderstorm to find her dangling her feet in the neighbor's pool totally confused. Kate Messner handles this issue beautifully. The story teaches what happens to an Alzheimer's patient, slowly slipping away, but also teaches to live in the moment, and enjoy the good times.

Gianna recognizes her organizational challenges and while they frustrate her, she has found positive outlets to help her cope with the frustration. She is a talented artist always creating and looking for the beauty in everything. Sometimes this works against her when she is distracted by creating something rather than focusing on her assignments, but she pulls through and even uses her talent to make a very unique leaf project that reflects who she is. Her artistic personality also is how she connects so closely with her grandmother, Nonna. Gianna is also a very gifted cross country runner and revels in running whenever she gets the chance.

Kate Messner tackles a lot of issues in this story, but she does it in a way that is not overwhelming or unbelievable. The pacing of the book and the memorable characters keep the story moving and don't let the reader get bogged down in the trials of life. I like this book a lot and I think most 4th and 5th graders will too.

More Reviews:
Book Nut
The Reading Zone
Jen Robinson's Book Page


  1. Well, thank you! A teacher-friend of mine on Twitter emailed me this week with a link to your lovely review. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts on GIANNA Z!

    I'm always happy to do Skype chats with classes or book clubs that have enjoyed Gianna's story, so by all means, feel free to drop me a note if you'd ever like to arrange something with your kids.

  2. Thanks for the recommendation! Can't wait to read it.

  3. Sounds like another great recommendation to add to my reading stack! What a kind author to offer a skype visit!

  4. This sounds like a wonderful choice for literature circles. The resources on the author's website were especially useful...I'm always looking for new additions to my library, especially for books middle school kids can relate to and discuss. Thank you!