I am really fortunate to get books from publishers and publicity companies. I don’t take all of the books that are offered to me, but every once in a while I find a book that is an extraordinary gem. One of the great books that I have had a chance to read is the forthcoming What I Like About Me by Jenna Guillaume (Peachtree Publishing; April 2020).
What I Like About Me isn’t the greatest piece of writing I have ever read, but I so wish there had been a book like this when I was growing up and I would love to get this book into the hands of tons of girls. The story is written in first person narrative in diary format (a popular style right now) by Maisie Martin. Maisie is a 16 year old girl who is overweight and really down on herself.
The journal is a homework assignment where they are supposed to write down their “discoveries.” But it isn’t just an annoying assignment, it is an assignment over vacation! Like most middle and high school students, she doesn’t begin the assignment with a whole lot of joy. Actually, she tries every way she can to skip the project. So even though she is forced and the first entries have that angry I don’t want to do this tone, they change over time. What Maisie is discovering is that her life seems to be going from bad to worse, but by the end, she has figured out how to believe in herself enough to turn it around. It takes a bit of getting used to the fact that it is “summer” vacation and Christmas as the book is set in Australia, but that goes away pretty quickly.
Maisie is seriously lacking in the self-esteem department. She is jealous of her sister who is off studying dance. She has had a crush on this guy Sebastian since forever, but has never told him. She wears big shirts and leggings to the beach, refusing to get into the water. And her best friend, Anna, is what she considers her “exact opposite.” Early on, Maisie Anna as “the kind of girl who oozes sexiness, who drips confidence, who makes guys do that cartoon eyes-popping-out-of-their-heads-tongues-falling-out-of-their-mouths thing whenever she walks past, who is just so completely herself and has a killer face and a rockin’ bod to boot…..I’m basically the exact opposite.”
The above description is one of the spot on popular culture style lines that Guillaume presents us with. Another one that I love which also exemplifies how she looks down on herself is a comparison to the movie Twins starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito (her favorite actor is Schwarzenegger, so he gets a lot of play). Maisie considers her sister, Eva, having gotten all of the good genes like Schwarzenegger where she is Danny DeVito stuck with the “leftover sludge.”
The power of this book comes from the fact that Maisie is holding herself back and it takes writing in her journal for her to realize some of that. She has put up so many walls that she struggles to truly see the world around her without a dark pallor hanging over it. This is something that a lot of pre-teens and young teenagers can relate to. Add in feeling that you don’t look like everyone else but feel helpless to do anything about it, and the power grows. Sometimes being a girl sucks and Jenna Guillaume manages to capture that frustration and questioning perfectly.
Maisie has to develop a tough shell to deal with the cruelty that people throw at girls who don’t have what the popular culture claims is the perfect body. It was a horrible thing to go through and it is sad that it hasn’t gotten any better since I was that age. I wish that I had managed to let things roll off my back and to learn how to love myself at a younger age. For many, it takes growing a bit older and getting out of the horrible world of high school to achieve that change. Guillaume managed to help Maisie grow and get some of that knowledge by the end of this book. If she can even help one girl stand a little bit taller, she will have done a mitzvah.
Guillaume has Maisie tackle a number of tough issues during one summer break – friendship, bravery, and self-love. It could leave the reader feeling like they were reading something sappy or didactic, but it doesn’t. The characters feel real and while a lot of things are happening to Maisie all at once, it is both believable and realistic.