Homeschooling Teen

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This Girl Is Different

Do you enjoy a good story with compelling and memorable heroes and heroines? This monthly column features homeschooled characters in literature and film. Wish you had your own copy of the book or movie? Just click on the product image or text links to go to the author’s site or Amazon to buy it!

this-girl-is-differentHomeschool Book Review By Tab Olsen

This Girl is Different details the clash of cultures when a homeschooler joins the public school system.

“Evie is different. Not just her upbringing-though that’s certainly been unusual – but also her mindset. She’s smart, independent, confident, opinionated, and ready to take on a new challenge: The Institution of School.

It doesn’t take this homeschooled kid long to discover that high school is a whole new world, and not in the way she expected. It’s also a social minefield, and Evie finds herself confronting new problems at every turn, failing to follow or even understand the rules, and proposing solutions that aren’t welcome or accepted.

Not one to sit idly by, Evie sets out to make changes. Big changes. The movement she starts takes off, but before she realizes what’s happening, her plan spirals out of control, forcing her to come to terms with a world she is only just beginning to comprehend.

JJ Johnson’s powerful debut novel will enthrall readers as it challenges assumptions about friendship, rules, boundaries, and power.”

Having been homeschooled all her life in an eco-friendly counter-culture household, 17-year-old Evensong “Evie” Sparkling Morningdew is not your typical teenage girl. She doesn’t wear makeup or shave her legs, for example, and she feels most at home when she’s outdoors. A natural leader, Evie is a strong female character who stands up for her principles and stays true to her cause. Evie is not without her faults as she’s young and naive, but she knows that there is still much more to learn. Even when Evie makes mistakes, and there are drastic results, she takes it all in stride.

Evie and her mother live in the woods, at the end of a long dirt road, in a self-sufficient geodesic dome home that they built from a kit. They have solar power, a composting toilet, an organic garden, bees, chickens, and a cow. Evie likes to draw snakes and other animals, and she builds amazing scale models of buildings, villages, and cities. Evie’s ambition is to attend Cornell University and study Urban Planning with a concentration in Social Justice. She wants to create sustainable communities.

Besides collecting icons from the world’s religions, Evie is well-read and fond of quotes – and evidently so is the author of the book (just like me!). Each chapter of This Girl is Different begins with an interesting quote, some rather obscure, which will spur you on to see what happens next as they are all cleverly related to the story.

“Life is a daring adventure or nothing.” — Helen Keller, Author and Activist, 1880-1968

Evie is intelligent, precocious, and has grown up learning how to think for herself, so she is confident and independent. Along with her well-developed sense of social justice, she is a bit of an idealist. Evie is also strongly opinionated, and with all these qualities combined, she tends to come off as a little too self-righteous at times.

Evie never met her dad; and her free-spirited peace-loving hippie mom, Martha (who works at Walmart of all places), pretty much lets her do whatever she wants. So Evie was raised pretty much without any parental authority figure. Don’t get me wrong; Evie’s mom is active and involved in Evie’s life, but more as a friend than a mother.

In her senior year, even though she feels that “education should be exhilarating, not compulsory,” Evie decides to go to public high school just to experience what it’s like. Her mother has always been anti-establishment so she would rather have her daughter never set foot in there. Evie convinces her mom to let her enroll in “The Institution of School” only after pitching it to her as “The Great Social Experiment,” in which she would have an opportunity to be investigative reporter and school-shaker-upper.

“Learning carries within itself certain dangers because out of necessity one has to learn from one’s enemies.” — Leon Trotsky, Marxist Theorist and Bolshevik Revolutionary, 1879-1940

The first thing Evie notices when she gets to school is the unattractive design. “The light in here makes everyone look greenish and alien. The classrooms have windows, but fluorescents drone on the ceilings, casting unnatural shadows. The halls have no natural light. Gray tile floors, cinder-block walls, dented metal lockers. It’s so sterile and impersonal. I can’t think of a less appealing environment. It’s like a warehouse. Except worse…. would it have killed someone to add skylights? Some live plants?” The students aren’t even allowed to go outside for some fresh air at lunch time.

Still, Evie tries to focus on the positive. All she knows of school is what she’s seen in movies, so Evie is excited to start her classes and meet people. But by the end of the first week all she can say is, “The last few days have been torture. In the movies, everyone hates high school, and I’m starting to comprehend why. It has nothing to do with pedagogy or educational philosophy. It’s the humans.” Evie’s attempts to dive into the social circles and fit in at school are futile. Evie ends up frustrating herself, her peers, and her teachers.

The sudden transition from doing as she pleases to being bound by all of the rules and regulations set forth by school authorities is what causes the most difficulty for Evie. She is shocked by the tyranny of teachers and the apathy of students. When Evie observes acts of inequality that seem unfair to her – but feel totally normal to the students who went to school all their lives – she makes a spectacle of herself as she challenges the status quo.

“It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.” — Henry David Thoreau, Writer and Philosopher, 1817-1862

Evie questions everything: Why do the teachers have cleaner and better supplied restrooms than the students? Why are students who can afford smartphones with data plans allowed to text and chat online during breaks, but those who can only afford regular cell phones are punished for answering a call from their mom at lunch time? Why do teachers not have to show the same level of respect toward students that students are required to show to them?

Evie soon finds out that her outspokenness and disregard for the school’s hierarchical power structure is not so welcome, and it gets her into a lot of trouble as she is sent to detention numerous times. But as much as she does not want to jeopardize her chance of attending Cornell the following year, Evie feels that she has to do what she believes is right to improve the lives of her fellow students. After seeing the gym teacher put down a cheerleader because of her weight, she takes it upon herself to do something about it.

Evie becomes a self-proclaimed advocate of student rights, and she starts a blog called the People’s Lightning to Undermine True Oppression (PLUTO) in an attempt to bring attention to the injustices at the school. But her plan backfires when things spin wildly out of control, and students take advantage of PLUTO to air personal grievances which hurt people’s feelings. Evie’s friends even call her a hypocrite. She then has to figure out how to rebuild her relationships and heal the school.

“Let us not become the evil that we deplore.” — Oakland Congresswoman Barbara Lee

This Girl is Different is filled with the usual high school cliches: the cheerleaders and jocks, the nerds and dorks, the popular kids and invisible kids. The book also addresses bullying, intimidation, sexism, and abuse of power. The story focuses on the things that high school kids deal with, so it’s definitely not a children’s book, but a young adult novel for 14-18-year-olds. There is some crude language and references to touchy subjects such as sex and a teacher-student affair.

This Girl is Different is about what it means to be an individual, to have the courage to stand up for what’s right, and the consequences that our words and actions can have. The book offers a powerful message concerning the lack of social justice and freedom of speech in high schools, and the prevalence of bullying and unfair treatment. It also delves into relationships of all sorts, and raises questions on what happens when personal freedom infringes on the freedoms of another.

If you are fundamentally opposed to conformity and look up to those who dare to be different, you will enjoy this book. Homeschoolers will love Evie’s critical analysis of the oppressive school system and how it contrasts with the freedom that she enjoyed while homeschooling. Public schoolers reading this book will be able to open their eyes and look at high school from a fresh perspective, perhaps considering things they may not have thought of before. School teachers, administrators, and anyone who works with youth will hopefully even learn something from this book.

“The attempt to combine wisdom and power has only rarely been successful and then only for a short while.” — Albert Einstein, Physicist and Nobel Prize Winner, 1879-1955

J.J. Johnson, the author of This Girl is Different, is a youth counselor turned young adult novelist. She has a Master of Education from Harvard University with a concentration in Adolescent Risk and Prevention. Johnson grew up in the 1980s in Norwich, a small town in central New York, and she currently lives in Durham, North Carolina. J.J. is a huge Star Wars fan (she even has a Chewbacca text message alert on her phone!). At her house she set up a Little Free Library box of books that she shares with her neighbors.

Download a set of discussion questions about This Girl is Different from the author’s website.


Please note: The above product was NOT provided for free or at a discount in exchange for a review. This item was purchased by a homeschooling family at their own expense.

2 Comments

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  1. Tab,
    Thank you so much for your thoughtful, thorough review! I LOVE that you included epigraphs from the book! Like Evie and you, I collect quotes, too. 🙂
    Cheers,
    J.J. Johnson

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