This Girl Is Different (Peachtree Publishers, April 2011) stars Evie, a girl who’s been home-schooled her whole life by her hippie mother but decides to try out “The Institution of School” for her senior year. Evie has few friends and doesn’t know much about how to be “normal.” Author J.J. Johnson could have taken us in the standard direction with this—mean girls torment our heroine until the handsome jock comes to her rescue. Thankfully, Johnson’s Evie and the world she lives in are much more unique and nuanced. Johnson spreads a message throughout the book about the value of activism and standing by your principles, but it rarely comes across as preachy. Instead, Evie and the other characters, who include a boy, a cheerleader who’s more than pom-poms, and a creepy teacher too many teens will recognize, are well rounded individuals with real-world concerns.
One of the great things about this book was that it caused me to think about things I don’t normally think about. Evie, in genuine confusion, wonders why she’s not allowed to use her cell phone or go outside during lunch. I have no doubt that these are real restrictions that kids face, and they had me scratching my head, too. (My high school had an open campus, so even hall passes seem weird to me. I’m not sure how I would have reacted to suddenly being locked inside.) Also, Evie initially thinks that if things don’t work out at school, she’ll just go back to being home-schooled, but she learns that her high school record will follow her even if she leaves, thus potentially derailing her college admission. It’s a testament to Johnson’s writing that I felt the terror and oppression of this with Evie. I saw how, for many people, school can seem more like a series of mines to be avoided than a place to learn.
As Evie struggles with navigating all the new rules, she forms relationships and makes mistakes of her own. The main arc of the book follows Evie’s struggle to repair those mistakes, keep her new friendships, and get the guy. Along with making The Institution of School a little better.
Cover image courtesy of Peachtree Publishers.