When you are THAT age, that time between 10 and 12, everything around you seems to shift juuuust slightly, and suddenly the world where you were so comfortable doesn’t entirely fit you anymore. You might feel a little odd because your body is beginning all those changes towards adulthood, and your brain is starting to realize that there’s a lot more going on in the world. Each of us has had that moment when we realize that we don’t entirely fit in; perhaps it’s happened when old friends drift away, or when there are changes in your family. Perhaps it’s when you start a new grade, or a new school, or when you begin to dream about your future.
I distinctly remember that #awkwardMGmoment; it happened when my mom took me to get braces. To be honest, I don’t think I really knew what I was in for when I went with her. I knew that my teeth needed attention (although I thought they were fine), and that I had to see a special dentist about them. That one appointment changed everything.
I went from being completely unconcerned about my appearance and fully confident with myself to second-guessing everything about me. I changed the way I laughed and smiled (couldn’t let anyone see those train tracks!), and stopped doing things that might call attention to myself – things that I had been doing without pause six months before. I remember being absolutely miserable and thinking that there was no way that anyone would want to be friends with someone as hideous as me.
The funny thing is, when I look back on photos of myself from this time, there’s one thing that strikes me. Yes, my mouth is closed and I’m not laughing out loud the way I used to. Yes, the clothing from the late 70’s and early 80’s was and remains horrendous – don’t judge me for my fashion choices. The cool thing is, my family is right there. I’m not being excluded from anything, I’m not being made to feel horrible about myself. My parents still took me out in public and socialized as usual, and (despite some pretty intense teasing at home), my brothers don’t appear to be ashamed to be in a photo with me.
I think that’s a pretty telling statement about how things are when we are in those awkward middle grade years. We think we are horrendous and that people don’t want to be with us, but there are always those who stand by us, and who really don’t care about how we look or feel or sound – we just don’t recognize or appreciate them at the time. Yes, there will be bullies such as Jessica along the way, and sometimes we will have parents like Alice’s who put tremendous emphasis on appearance. However, there will also be friendships like that of Millie and Alice, and supportive family members such as Millie’s loving family, and we need that reminder. All is not lost, even though it feels like it. You just need to find the right people to be around.
From New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Weiner comes a laugh-out-loud funny and painstakingly real tale of friendship, furry creatures, and finding the place where you belong.
Alice Mayfair, twelve years old, slips through the world unseen and unnoticed. Ignored by her family and shipped off to her eighth boarding school, Alice would like a friend. And when she rescues Millie Maximus from drowning in a lake one day, she finds one.
But Millie is a Bigfoot, part of a clan who dwells deep in the woods. Most Bigfoots believe that people—NoFurs, as they call them—are dangerous, yet Millie is fascinated with the No-Fur world. She is convinced that humans will appreciate all the things about her that her Bigfoot tribe does not: her fearless nature, her lovely singing voice, and her desire to be a star.
Alice swears to protect Millie’s secret. But a league of Bigfoot hunters is on their trail, led by a lonely kid named Jeremy. And in order to survive, Alice and Millie have to put their trust in each other—and have faith in themselves—above all else.
Full disclosure: I’ve been a Jennifer Weiner reader since Cannie Shapiro and Good in Bed. I’ve always really enjoyed how Weiner has taken on the topic of feeling as if you don’t fit in – at work, in your family, in your personal life, in your own body – and created characters who are relatable and witty. When I heard that she was writing a middle grade novel, I had great hopes that she would carry those traits and issues over to that very particular age group. Fortunately for all of us, she did, and The Littlest Bigfoot is a charming and enjoyable book that explores the loneliness we have all felt when we don’t believe that we belong.
One of Weiner’s strengths lies in her characters. From the beginning, my heart ached for Alice as she is shunted off to her eighth boarding school by parents who are clearly at a loss with what to do with her. Alice doesn’t look like her perfectly styled mother and cannot connect to her busy father, both of whom seem to love her albeit from a distance. She is her own worst critic, hating her hair, her size, her clumsiness, and her very being, and that broke my heart. I can’t think of anyone who hasn’t wondered if they were adopted or that their parents might have brought him the wrong baby from the hospital; as much as Alice wishes for different parents, what she is really wishing for is a chance to belong and be loved for who she is, and who hasn’t wished for that? I loved that Alice found solace with her Granny, and that she has an untapped (and we’re all pretty much unaware at that age) gift for cooking and baking. So many of my young patrons can’t see the good within them at this age, because they are so focused on what’s not right.
Millie is the opposite of Alice in many ways. She has a loving family that cares deeply about her, and she knows that she has the love and support of her community at all times. However, like Alice, Millie struggles to find her place in her family. She wants more than her community can provide – adventure, exploration, and even stardom. While Millie doesn’t like her body either – too short, too small, too furry – she has a bit more fire in her and I enjoyed how Millie persevered in trying to expand her boundaries. Neither girl is perfect – Millie cannot recognize that the protectiveness of her family may be justified at times, and Alice has been so badly hurt in the past that she cannot see real friendship when it is offered – and that makes them even more authentic middle graders. When the two finally meet, they are the yin to the other’s yang, and it was lovely to see how they supported each other.
I have to mention Jeremy, because it’s important to remember that it isn’t just girls who struggle with self-acceptance in middle grade. I was so happy to see him in this book because I often think that pre-teen boys have a lonely existence at times. Female friendships are imprinted on us to the point where we seem to keep an eye out for the outcast girl, but I’m not sure that we do the same favour for those awkward young boys who are also struggling. As with many real-life Jeremy’s, he finds his friendships online, and not everyone is who they appear to be. He adds a different flavour to the narrative, one that enriches the story.
Fans of Weiner’s books will be reassured to hear that her trademark humour is still present, and adult readers will appreciate the sly commentary on alternative schools. I loved the descriptions of Alice’s previous schools, as well as life at the Experimental Centre for Love and Learning (I’ll swear I’ve taught with some of those instructors…). Weiner is able to use gentle humour to defuse some of the more tense scenes, including one at the end with the media that could have turned truly frightening. More sensitive readers will want to be aware that the bullying storyline may hit close to home, as Jessica’s (and her classmates’) behaviour is all-too realistic and disheartening.
The Littlest Bigfoot is an engaging and relatable story about struggling to accept who you are as well as the importance of finding your own kind of people. I loved Alice, Millie and Jeremy, and enjoyed how each of them had strengths that they could not see until others pointed them out, and how they found the strength within to overcome their fears. Weiner explores issues of bullying and self-acceptance in a way that younger readers will connect with and enjoy. The ending is left open for a sequel, and I hope we will see more of Alice, Millie and Jeremy.
A copy of The Littlest Bigfoot was received from the publisher as part of this blog tour. It is available for purchase from your favourite indie, online and major chain bookstores. ISBN: 9781481470742, 304 pages.