Let me start off by saying that I’m pretty stingy with my stars. 3.5 stars should be considered an endorsement from me!
I really enjoyed Up For Air by Laurie Morrison and think it is the kind of book I wish I had found when I was an Upper Middle Grade-aged reader! While some of the ‘lessons’ of the book felt a little forced to me, I loved the honesty of the depiction of teenage girls and their myriad feelings. There is a lot of ‘girl power’ in this book but it doesn’t overlook the fact that girls who grow up to be strong women often do so through surviving a lot of pain!
Up for Air is the story of Annabelle, a 13 year old who is going into the 8th grade. She’s a talented swimmer but faces a lot of challenges in the classroom. Through her story, we learn a lot about what it feels like to struggle with learning…the hard work, frustration, embarrassment and shame that comes with doing everything you can to succeed and continuing to ‘fall short’ of your own expectations. Annabelle is completely comfortable in the pool and wishes she could find that level of confidence elsewhere in her life.
Annabelle is also an ‘early bloomer.’ She’s developing into a woman before everyone’s eyes and beginning to draw a lot of attention from guys and girls alike. We watch her deal with the experience of being placed in situations (like the high school swim team) where her body is ready but her emotional maturity may not be. Connor is on the high school swim team and Annabelle is smitten…as we watch, she navigates her first crush and all of the baggage that comes with it. The Annabelle-Connor story is prominent in the book and serves to make Up for Air more appropriate for the Upper Middle Grade reader rather than the 8-10 year old set.
Morrison does an amazing job of portraying what is feels like to be 13. 32 years later, I still recognized much of Annabelle’s joy, worry and humiliation. Because of Morrison’s ‘spot on’ writing, I could again feel those feelings in my bones…I can only imagine that that experience would be incredibly reassuring to a current middle schooler.
Family drama also ensues in this book: Annabelle’s parents are divorced and her dad is an alcoholic. Annabelle is torn between the new blended family that she lives in and loves and a yearning for the father that she hasn’t seen in many years. Watching that experience play out for Annabelle is also both uncomfortable and enlightening.
There’s a lot of insight into the middle/high school girl dynamic as well. It was no surprise to me to learn, in the acknowledgements, that Morrison used to be a middle school teacher: she absolutely nails the interactions between girls at that age. This, however, is where the book also became difficult for me: it felt like Morrison tried a bit too hard to infuse ‘lessons’ into the narrative. As an example, one passage in particular (about Janine, Annabelle’s tutor and her experience as a person of color) felt like it was inserted into an otherwise innocuous experience between the two girls as a way to be ‘inclusive’ or teach a ‘lesson’ about discrimination. I felt ‘preached to’ in a way that could have been avoided if the topic had been folded more naturally into the story. I respect Morrison’s desire to use this platform to educate young readers but suspect that they will see through the ‘set up’ easily, which might lead that lesson to be less impactful.
Overall, I truly enjoyed Annabelle’s story. Morrison’s characters are well-drawn, especially the young people. There’s no doubt that she knows her stuff when it comes to the teenage psyche. This book provides great insight for parents into what might be happening in their teenager’s mind and serves as a acknowledgement for young people that they are not alone in their experiences. At 292 pages, it’s a quick read that is well worth the investment.