Leap by Jane Breskin Zalben
Random House; January 2007; 272 pp; $15.99 HC
Core Audience: Girls and boys 10+ who like stories based in reality
Strengths: Alternating viewpoints; great writing that really captures all of the conflicting emotions of pre-adolescence
These days, there are so many books being written for the middle grade audience that have grand character arcs and larger than life storylines that it is easy for the quieter books to get lost among all the destitute orphans, the young wizards, and the wise-cracking goofballs.
Here is a lovely book about a group of friends growing up in Flushing, Queens, and what happens to their small community one year when one of them has an unexpected accident. It changes not only his life, but it subtly shifts and re-focuses the lives of everyone in the community.
When Daniel almost dies due to an allergic reaction during routine dental surgery in the days after 5th grade graduation, the neighborhood doesn’t know how to react. Handsome, gifted and athletic, Daniel seems like the last boy who could have something bad happen to him. Soon it’s clear that something bad has happened, and worse—it was his best friend’s dad who was doing the surgery. It’s not as if he died, say some, while others don’t know what to think about the fact that Daniel cannot do many of the physical things he could do before, like walk without help, and swim on the school team. It is clear that his life and the lives of his family have changed radically. It’s worse for Krista, who used to be Daniel’s best friend, and who feels guilty for not reaching out to him now even though they aren’t as close as they used to be. Torn between her old allegiances, her family, and her social life, she’s not sure she can do the right thing even though she wants to.
Told in the alternating voices of Daniel and Krista, this novel perfectly captures all of the nuances of that transitional period between childhood and adolescence when identity is fragile, and alliances and feelings shift on a daily basis. In another author’s hands this subject matter could easily go over the edge into melodrama, but Zalben uses a delicate touch and real empathy for her characters which keeps the overall tone hopeful without being saccharine. There is a great supporting cast and excellent development of character and place.
In the end this is a novel about real characters–both kids and adults–having real and complicated emotions, and it perfectly demonstrates the idea that sometimes we can only discover the value in our lives by taking a leap of faith.
So when you get tired of all the hype and silliness, Leap is just the novel to keep it real.