Monday, April 13, 2015

My Life in Dioramas by Tara Altebrando

My Life in Dioramas by Tara Altebrando. 255 p. Running Kids/ Running Press, April 28, 2015. 9780762456819. (Review from arc courtesy of publisher.)

Moving household is a well-trod subject in literature for children and young adults. It speaks to a very real fear of children, both those who never move in their lives and those who do. Picture books tend to be reassuring. Novels for middle grade and young adults tend to dig a little deeper. I wondered how this one would set itself apart.

Dioramas! Man, does that word invoke strong memories! Memories of panicked sons, of scrambling around the house looking for a shoe box at the last minute, and torn paper and detritus sloppily glued - it wasn't a pretty sight in my house. 

I disregarded my diorama trauma baggage and entered My Life in Dioramas with an open mind. I am pleased to report that Kate, our plain-spoken, twelve-year-old narrator, beguiles from the beginning. It IS hard to not kill a stinkbug when one discovers one on the toilet paper roll mid-pee and it is hard to be anything but charmed by Kate. 

Kate Marino lives in a tiny bit of Eden with her artsy, free-spirited parents. If things are a bit run-down and rough around the edges; if the house's layout is a bit odd; she doesn't mind in the slightest. She knows every inch of her home and its outbuildings. She has a dance studio in her barn and a neat loft from which she spies on her parents' while they argue about money. See, neither of them work regularly and money is so tight that they have to sell their home. 

Big Red, the only home that Kate has ever known, is going on the market. Kate will not stand for this. She cooks up plans to undermine the sale of the house with her best friends, Naveen and Stella. Well, it seems Naveen is the only one completely on board. Stella is less enthusiastic. About as enthusiastic as Kate is about crushes and boy-girl parties. 

This gentle middle grade story has a lot to offer. Kate is an engaging narrator. She's honest, articulate, down-to-earth and often quite dryly funny.  The rest of the characters are vivid. Her best friendship with Naveen is solid. Her best friendship with Stella is on shaky ground thanks to Stella's burgeoning interest in boys and newfound desire to compete in dance. Even Kate's parents are flawed and complex. The dialogue rings true, as do the interpersonal issues (between the friends, between the parents and between Kate and her parents) and there's plenty of humor to leaven the conflicts. 

The art was not final, but what was available nicely illustrates Kate's world. All-in-all, My Life in Dioramas is a pleasing novel to give thoughtful readers interested in reading about emotional dynamics.

But wait! You may be wondering about the dioramas. Kate is assigned to create one in social studies class that depicts a scene from her life. She can't decide between showing her feral cat, Pants with her soon-to-be-born kittens or her parents in a fight. She ends up going to school empty-handed though; because she was given the news about the impending move. She has to do two in order to make the assignment up. No slap-dash dioramas for Kate though. After completing two, she sets about recreating her beloved Big Red in a series of dioramas. She's an artist who pays attention to detail as does her creator, Ms. Altebrando.

ETA: Here's a link to a lovely book trailer.

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