(Note: This review contains some spoilers.)
Cassie, Nick, and Julie almost got to be stepsiblings. Almost. But just a few weeks before their parents were to get married, something blew it all up. Nick and Julie’s dad, Travis, took them and moved to Chicago. Cassie’s mom, Jen, left Cassie in Missouri with her grandmother and headed out to California for some alone time. None of the kids can figure out exactly what happened. All they know is that they’re disappointed, lonely — and determined to find some way, however far-fetched, to make things right.
“Just Sayin’,” by Dandi Daley Mackall, tells this story in the form of letters, texts, and phone calls among the various characters. Mostly letters. Since the kids don’t have cell phones, they — especially Cassie and Nick — share their woes and make their plans via snail mail. Most of their plans center on their favorite comedian, Johnathan “King” Kirby — although technically they’re not supposed to watch him, insult humor not being favored by either of their parents. Cassie and Nick discover that King is holding auditions for a new show called “The Last Insult Standing,” and they decide that this could be the key to getting their families back together. But it’s going to take a lot of coordination, a lot of daring, a lot of prayer, and a few unexpected twists to get them there.
“Just Sayin'” is a middle-school novel from Christian publisher Tyndale, so the kids’ churchgoing and their thoughts on prayer, the Bible, and other spiritual topics are freely woven into the narrative. For example, Cassie, on the advice of her pastor, starts writing letters to Jesus, and learning to look up His “answers” in the Bible. She also spends a lot of time reading Proverbs, which starts to change her mind about the insult humor that she loves. She still has her hopes pinned on getting on the show, but when she gets her big chance, what comes out of her mouth isn’t quite what she or anyone else had expected.
These elements are generally handled well, although the idea that other contestants would get furious with Cassie for quoting Proverbs strains credulity a little. (Bewildered, maybe; furious, not very likely.) A lot of the other insults that make it onto this national TV show are also not quite believable in this day and age. While I understand that Mackall had to keep them mild for her target audience, some of these supposedly cutting-edge insults were old when I was a middle-schooler.
Nevertheless, Mackall does do a good job of showing Cassie wrestling with the discrepancy between her faith and her favorite brand of humor. As she comes to realize just how much power words have, she wants to be more careful with them. It also helps that she’s come to know and love Julie, who has a genetic disease that leads to her getting teased and bullied a lot. Knowing that her almost-stepsister suffers from insults makes Cassie think about them differently.
This is really the heart of the story; some of the other plotlines are handled a little more perfunctorily. The conflict that broke up Travis and Jen turns out to be pretty weak, but it’s not the main focus and probably not of much interest to readers, anyway, since the two are mostly background characters. The way they handle some things doesn’t exactly make them ideal parents — as when Travis tells Cassie that the breakup was her mother’s fault, or Jen leaves Cassie for an indefinite period of time and they both avoid talking to each other on the phone — but despite their flaws, they do seem to love their own and each other’s kids. There aren’t any other content issues for parents to be concerned about.
“Just Sayin'” isn’t the strongest middle-school novel I’ve read in recent months, but it has an original and interesting premise, likable main characters, and some good themes about the power and use of words. It’s a quick read — though some of the fonts used in the various letters can be a bit troublesome to decipher — and many middle-schoolers, particularly younger ones, will probably find it a pleasant one.
Image copyright Tyndale House Publishers. Review copy obtained from the publisher.
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog, and the author of “One by One: Welcoming the Singles in Your Church” (Baker, June 2017).
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