Review: My Life in Dioramas, by Tara Altebrando (May 2015)

My Life in Dioramas coverThe pitch: Kate has lived her entire life in the rambling, quirky old house everyone calls Big Red. When her parents tell her they have to move, she decides to fight back.

The review: Time to ‘fess up: I cannot approach books about homes objectively. My family made a few big moves when I was a kid, and my entire adult life has been shaped by the search for a home I’d never have to leave. (Kate’s mom tells her, “Seriously, all of this, really, is going to amount to such a blip in your life…. [W]hen you’re my age, you’ll have maybe a handful of vague memories of what it was like to be twelve.” Not true, Olivia! What if Kate decides to teach middle school?)

So I’m not ashamed to admit this book had me in sniffles a few times. But whether or not moving is a sore point for them, I think a lot of kids will love this book, too. It’s gently funny, for one thing, as Kate and her friend Naveen come up with increasingly entertaining and disgusting methods for dissuading possible buyers. The friend drama and growing-up drama is usually spot on, as in this conversation between Kate and her best friend Stella that I’ve more or less heard from my students:

“Why are you so set on me having a crush on somebody anyway?”

“Because it’s what we’re supposed to be doing.”

“According to…?” I looked around the room.

I was especially impressed with the treatment of Kate’s parents. Kate’s mom is falling into depression about the failures of her life, and her dad feels guilty for not being a better provider. Half-understood parental problems are stressful for kids, of course, and Altebrando showcases that beautifully. We see enough of their problems to sketch hints of their fully-realized adult world, without having Kate constantly hovering behind doorways to overhear key conversations. It never stops being Kate’s story.

Between the sniffles and the depression, I’m making this sound like a downer. (I tend to do that, don’t I?) It’s quite the opposite: a sweet, hopeful book about making the best of things. The happy ending is too easy, unsurprisingly, and before we get to the happiness there’s one last unnecessary kick to the characters (and reader) while we’re down. But overall, it’s a warm and comforting winner.

Recommendation: A solid choice for middle grade realistic fiction fans, fitting alongside Joan Bauer or Wendy Mass or Raina Telgemeier. I plan to send my copy off with the nearest between-books 6th grader tomorrow.

Disclosure: I received an advance review copy from the publisher.

Tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *