Saturday, May 08, 2010

Book Review: Julia Gillian and the Art of Knowing by Alison McGhee

Book: Julia Gillian and the Art of Knowing
Author: Alison McGhee
Published: 2008
Source: Swapped

Julia Gillian seems to have the perfect life. She has an excellent name (of which she always uses the full version), two loving parents, a great dog named Bigfoot, interesting friends like her upstairs neighbors and the adults in her neighborhood, and lots of skills and talents.

But not all things in Julia Gillian's life are perfect. She's scared of the green book that she started reading, and immediately stopped when it became clear to her that the dog (so like her own Bigfoot) would die. She hates that her parents are taking classes all summer and can't do all the summer things they usually do. She's frustrated that she can't conquer the claw machine in the hardware store and get the meerkat doll that she's longed for.

More and more this summer, she has to resort to her fierce raccoon face mask for courage. She's always been able to predict what will happen next, but all of a sudden she seems to have lost what she calls "the art of knowing." The world seems to be closing in around her with doom-laden headlines. Is this really what growing up is about?

What a quietly marvelous piece of work this was. What really made it stand out for me was that Alison McGhee respects her main character's fears. There is never a Pollyanna moment, with Julia Gillian realizing that "Oh, things aren't so bad!" Because they are. The scary headlines are real, the dog does die in the green book, and you can fail to capture that elusive meerkat doll. None of that is going away, and very little of it isn't as bad as it seems. The only thing to do is recognize your own fear and press forward in spite of it.

This isn't an action-packed book. It takes place mostly within Julia Gillian's head, as she contemplates and works through her various feelings in reaction to a summer that is not the summer of her dreams. The reflective child, beset with their own fears and misgivings, will recognize her as a soul sister immediately. In this tender book, McGhee ably captures the way that very small things can loom large in the mind of a sensitive child. There are two more Julia Gillian books in the works, and I wouldn't miss them for the world.

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