Posted Friday, July 1, 2011, at 1:58 PM
Elizabeth, in curly-haired solidarity, I’ve got a book to recommend to our younger incarnations. When I was a kid, I was curly-redheaded and freckled and chubby—a far cry from the Wakefield twins. Though Ms. Frizzle was awesome and I got to play Annie twice, I didn’t make peace with my curls until laziness led to their rediscovery in college. (Air-drying! Who knew?)
The problem you hit on, though, is much broader than hair. There are all kinds of ways to be different, and kids need media that intelligently and sensitively addressees diverse identities, looks, and lifestyles. When Life Gives You O.J. is a welcome addition to the collection. The satisfying little novel by occasional Slate contributor Erica S. Perl is written from the perspective of Zelda, a sixth-grade girl with a freckle face and dark brown, bushy hair (Hoorah!). After her beloved grandmother passes away, Zelda is unwillingly transplanted from Brooklyn to Vermont. There, the family moves in with her grandfather, Ace, a kooky figure with A PROCLIVITY TO SPEAK IN CAPS-LOCK YIDDISH. Zelda is desperate for a dog, and Ace proposes they persuade her parents with a “practice dog:” an orange juice container that Zelda must walk, feed, and care for daily.
In Vermont, Zelda feels decidedly “Not From Here.” No one can pronounce her last name, Fried. She’s humiliated by the cow tongue in her lunchbox. She cannot accompany her best friend to a Christian summer camp. And while her old Brooklyn school was full of beaded braids and bushy-haired comrades, Vermont seems a sea of glossy blondeness. There are few other Jewish families around, so Zelda fields inquiries about “sitting and shivering” (sitting shiva) and “those little beanies” (yarmulkes). The novel deftly avoids coming off as dated or preachy, however, as Zelda’s Jewish and regional identity is naturally intertwined with her inner life.
Her emotional life also rings true. While she’s ardently attached to her best friend, she fiercely withdraws to her inner world when that intimacy is betrayed. An ambiguously romantic involvement with a neighborhood boy is a plot point, but it doesn’t drive the narrative or Zelda’s choices. She’s on the cusp of being sensitive to her family as an embarrassment, and she fears coming off as “babyish.” She’s lonesome, but often assertive against girls who bully her.
Zelda is sharp and believable, and the book is a lovely way to introduce a bit of cultural fluency to kids who don’t grow up a Jewish tradition. Perl provides a small reference guide for the Yiddish that’s sprinkled throughout the book: chazeria, chutzpah, shayna, meshuggener, and, of course, tucus. When I was growing up in the 1990s, I wanted more strong female characters in my books, and more curls. It’s good to know that, today, I could just hand my preteen daughter When Life Gives You O.J. And maybe confiscate the flat iron.