Sunday, January 31, 2021

Jelly, by Jo Cotterill

Jelly is the class clown.  Adept at mimicking her classmates and their teachers, she makes everyone in eighth grade laugh. But the truth is that she's hurting inside.  She'd like to tell people the truth about how their harsh words about her weight hurt her feelings, but people don't want to hear that.  Instead, it's simply better to smile, act like it doesn't hurt, and laugh it all off as a joke.  Life goes on and making a big fuss won't solve anything.

While her decision to deflect through comedy gives her agency and the appearance of confidence, Jelly still finds that she comes home exhausted after a day of wearing her happy face.  She's hardly alone.  She's seen the way her mother pretends to be happy around her friends and how Mom tries to please the selfish men she dates and placate Jelly's abusive grandfather.  Jelly's mother just pretends it doesn't hurt.  

But then Mom gets a new boyfriend who's different from the others. He's supportive of Jelly's Mom and solicitous to Jelly's hopes and dreams.  He comes with novel notions that it is alright to feel bad and that appearances are overrated.  It's attractive and yet terrifying at the same time and Jelly and her mother have to decide how much longer they want to keep pretending?

It's a middle reader that surprises.  On its face, the book is safely in the beauty-is-on-the-inside realm.  Jelly learns that she doesn't have to hide behind self-deprecation and that she can get what she wants without always making people laugh.  But the novel, by bringing in her mother's example (and exploring the abusive nature of her grandfather's relationship with his family) bites off much meatier material:  exploring the way that abusive patterns develop and what it takes for a victim to free themselves from them.  Jelly articulates the feelings of her age well, but her fears and the angst surrounding them will resonate with almost every reader to one extent or another, making this story of building self-confidence a universal tale.  A good choice for multi-generational reading and sharing.

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