As I comb through the books I’ve read in 2018, I keep returning to the Middle Grade novel “The Science of Breakable Things” by Tae Keller. It has been a good while since a children’s book has made such an impression on me. In addition to being a clever and heartwarming story, it touches on themes rarely explored in Middle Grade fiction. I think about how I would have reacted if I had read it as a child. I imagine how validated and safe I would have felt.
The Science of Breakable Things is narrated by Natalie, a 12 year old Korean-American girl whose botanist mother has mysteriously retreated to her room, leaving her father to manage the house’s affairs and all of her beloved plants to die. Natalie discovers that her mother’s behavior is a symptom of depression, and sets out to find a solution that will coax her mother out of her room. To fund her plan, she enrolls in her school’s egg drop competition to win the $500 prize. She enlists the help of her two friends Twig and Dari, who provide invaluable emotional support as Natalie faces the complexities of her mother’s depression and the limits of her own power to change the situation.
I could likely assemble a much longer list of reasons why this book is important, but I have narrowed it down to four, which I hope will be enough to convince you to add it to your collection and share it widely.
“I’ve been depressed, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love you, always. I am so sorry.” (p.271)
“She looked like Mom again, with her Serious Business hair and her dirty hands and her crackling eyes, but she wasn’t exactly the same.” (p. 277)
Tae Keller manages an accurate and compassionate representation of depression and its effect on family life. Natalie learns that mental illness is not something one chooses, nor does it change who a person is. Throughout the story, she vacillates between moments of anger and moments of compassion towards her mother, highlighting the reality that there are no easy solutions.
“I know you weren’t ready to talk about your mom today, and I respect that, but next week I’d like to discuss the situation a little further.” (p. 124)
Natalie is vocal about how her mother’s depression is affecting her. She yearns for the situation to be different, to return to the ways of the past when her mother was upbeat and involved. She starts acting out, searching for answers and desperately seeks clarity from her father who takes her to see a therapist. I can’t think of many children’s books that feature a main character in therapy – these scenes between Natalie and her therapist are so well crafted and normalize what is often shrouded in mystery. I can imagine that a child would find great interest in these scenes, and that they would hopefully validate their own experiences of talking about their feelings.
“And that was when I started crying. I cracked open and cried like I would never stop crying, like I would cry until all of me was gone. I was too afraid to look up from my curled-up cocoon and see my parents, because they weren’t the Mom and Dad I used to know. They were so much more now. Not perfect, not magic-but real.” (p. 271)
Natalie discovers her parents’ humanity: their faults, their limits, their struggles. For the first time, she is confronted with the possibility that her parents don’t have all the answers. But more importantly, she discovers that this does not discredit them. In fact, it causes her to respect them even more. This realization is the foundation for healthy and vulnerable communication, and ultimately the answers Natalie is looking for.
Mixed Race Identity
“…it kind of made me feel like my family was bad at being Korean. Like I was bad at it…I usually forgot that part of me existed until my grandmother visited of someone brought it up… That had never felt wrong until now.” (p.171)
Natalie acknowledges that her Korean heritage has never been a source of curiosity or intrigue. It isn’t until her new friend Dari begins to describe his experience living in India that she wonders what it means to be Korean, and how she could integrate Korean customs and practices into her life. She realizes that ethnicity and racial identity are not a performance, but are a form of respect and a source of connection and community with her extended family. This nuanced portrayal of mixed identity is just as endearing as it is informative.
“As it turns out, you can’t always protect breakable things. Hearts and eggs will break, and everything changes, but you keep going anyway.” (p. 292)
Natalie goes through a lot in this book. She develops a sense of responsibility towards her mother: the responsibility to heal her, to make her happy again, to restore her family as it once was. She places an enormous amount of pressure on herself to win the Egg Drop Contest. The first person narrative grants the reader an intimate kind of nearness to Natalie and her whirlwind of feelings, and proximity to witness her growth throughout the book. She learns to regulate her emotions and demonstrate empathy. Her perception of her mother moves from one of confusion and judgment, to one of warmth and compassion.
I can’t gush enough about this book. Read it, love it, share it. This is Tae Keller’s debut novel and I can’t wait for her to become a household name in Middle Grade Fiction.
Today’s guest blogger is Katherine Hickey. Katherine is a Children’s Librarian at the Belle Isle Library (Metropolitan Library System) in Oklahoma City.
Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.
If you’d like to write a guest post for the ALSC Blog, please contact Mary Voors, ALSC Blog manager.
This post addresses the following ALSC Core Competency: IV. Knowledge, Curation, and Management of Materials.