There are no wizards, demi-gods, vampires, werewolves, fairies, zombies, or any other supernatural entities in The Life and Opinions of Amy Finawitz by Laura Toffler-Corrie. Instead there are two middle-school girls who like email, a former librarian senior citizen, a conservative Jewish boy, a nerdish jock, and several normal characters with normal abilities, normal faults, and normal lives. Yet this is an exceptional book.
For starters, here’s the cast of characters. Besides Amy and Callie, two middle-schooler girls who exchange email after Callie moves to Kansas and leaves Amy to fend for herself in New York City, there’s the token jock who can be rather insensitive but can also be super nice and even nerdy about history. You’d never guess from their portrayal in the majority of our popular movies and books that popular kids could be complex human beings, but in this book they mostly are. There’s also Miss Sophia. Surely you have noticed how quickly in children’s book adults are turned into dysfuctional parents, killed off in accidents or crimes, or worse–don’t even exist? Thereby, they are successfully relegated to the lowly ranks of minor characters who rarely have any impact on the main characters. Not so here. Miss Sophia becomes a member of Amy’s “dream team” for her historical journal assignment an Amy learns about life as much or more from her as she did does from any of her peers.
Another exceptional quality of the book is its humor. I laughed pretty much every chapter. Some of the humor lies in small scenes. For example, Amy refers to a guest doctor on a talk show. He shares this wise insight: It’s often the unstable, unemotionally needy child, aka pain in the butt, who needs all the attention. Amy smartly writes: “Very insightful, those doctor guests, don’t you think?” Some of the humor lies in larger scenes. For example, when Amy’s teacher calls on her to share her favorite morality tale, Amy makes one up based on a PBS documentary she saw about dingoes attacking an emu. She says the moral is God saw the emu but let it die because God doesn’t consider emus are that important. (Amy later gains more positive perspectives on God.) Her teacher asks her to meet later, causing Amy to vent to her friend Callie about teachers who care too much for their students: “Isn’t there some support group out there for people who can’t stop teaching, like Teacher’s Anonymous?”
The book also accomplishes the amazing feat of integrating religion without being preachy or antagonistic. To my recollection, the last book to even come close to such a balance with religion was Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret? In both books the main characters are Jewish. (Actually, Margaret is only half Jewish and therein lies her dilemma.) Furthermore, in this book, one of the main male characters in this book is conservative Jewish–and proud of it while also being a sweet and sincere and likeable guy. Through him, we learn about Jewish celebrations and beliefs.
The Life and Opinions of Amy Finawitz isn’t perfect. While most of the email exchange reads like that of two chatty middle-schoolers, once in awhile some phrases come closer to resembling that of two chatty women with adultish-like phrases: “braver girl than me,” “didn’t have the heart to tell her,” “sigh, more good times,” or “panic wells up in my breast”. The rest of my quibbles with the book can be summarized like this: The author doesn’t confirm until two-thirds into the book that Amy is in eighth grade; I find it a little unbelievable that Callie’s parents would take a one-year trip to Europe and move her to Kansas in their absence; The author doesn’t reveal until two-thirds into the book that Callie is now living with her aunt and uncle; I question whether the author has ever been to Kansas (or the Heartland as she frequently calls it), because much of her descriptions of it involve stereotypes. Last, as the book progresses, Amy begins to more frequently use words like “damn” and “hell”.
Otherwise, despite its total lack of the supernatural so prevalent today in teen books, The Life and Opinions of Amy Finawitz is just about perfect. Besides all the reasons mentioned earlier, it also succeeds because it gently leads us to wonderful truths about life. I will be sharing this book with my sister, whois in middle school. It will also find a permanent home on my shelves. This is one of my favorite reads of the year!
My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.
How would you rate this book?