Sticks & Stones by Abby Cooper
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Publication date: July 12, 2016
Genres/topics: Middle grade contemporary (magical realism?)
A feel-good middle grade debut with just a hint of magic about a girl who has a rare disorder that makes the words other people say about her appear on her body.
Ever since she was a baby, the words people use to describe Elyse have instantly appeared on her arms and legs. At first it was just “cute” and “adorable,” but as she’s gotten older and kids have gotten meaner, words like “loser” and “pathetic” appear, and those words bubble up and itch. And then there are words like “interesting,” which she’s not really sure how to feel about. Now, at age twelve, she’s starting middle school, and just when her friends who used to accept and protect her are drifting away, she receives an anonymous note saying “I know who you are, and I know what you’re dealing with. I want to help.” As Elyse works to solve the mystery of who is sending her these notes, she also finds new ways to accept who she is and to become her best self.
Sticks & Stones was one of my most anticipated books of the year, as I had discovered it when looking for new middle grade releases that interested me so I could continue exploring the market that I’m planning on writing in. And that plot summary won me over. Sixth grade and self-esteem? Deal me in.
The novel is more of a contemporary than anything else, but part of me wants to also call it magical realism. CAV, the disease Elyse has that causes words to appear on her arms and legs if someone calls her them–or, as she discovers, if she calls herself them–is, of course, fictional. But it’s so intrinsic to the message and characterization of the story that it feels almost like an extended, magical metaphor. The good words soothe, the bad words itch. Additionally, there is a mystery aspect that drives the story forward, which is bound to keep young readers flipping the pages.
Something that stands out about Sticks & Stones is Elyse’s first-person narrative voice. I admit that I have a complicated relationship to a voice that’s trying to be “current,” because it can be engaging, but often I worry if it can become easily dated, alienate some readers, or hinder the clarity of some descriptions. However, I’m no longer the targeted age group, nor do I work with them, so I don’t think I can really make a judgement here, and I can say that the story was still affecting. I also liked how Cooper doesn’t shy away from the realities of kids these age: they do “go out,” they do kiss, they do have Internet profiles, etc. And friendships do change.
One part of the plot I did figure out early on when the clue was dropped, but the way Elyse interpreted the clue was also understandable due to her own biases and views, and I did not see and was rather pleased by the big reveal. Also because of Elyse’s perspective, I felt that the characters lacked some depth. However, by the end, Elyse is able to see the different dimensions of these peoples and part of the conclusion is that she learns to see these complexities, which I do appreciate. There’s also a feminist message attached to the end as Elyse learns she doesn’t need a guy to make her feel good about herself and she can do that on her own, which is important considering how the media is over-saturated “happily ever after” love stories.
Overall, Sticks & Stones is certainly an engaging read with important messages for girls (especially) in middle school or heading to middle school soon.