Pretty - Justin Sayre

Set three months after Husky's conclusion and narrated by Sophie, Davis's best friend, Sayre details the private and public life of someone saddled with the adjective of pretty. Confident, stylish, and easygoing at school, Sophie is struggling in her home life. Stepping in to help as her mother's addiction spirals out of control, Sophie's aunt teaches the biracial Sophie new lessons about her heritage. While helping to heal the wounds inflicted by alcoholism, Sophie's renewed sense of self challenges her perception of place in the affluent, "liberal" neighborhood of Park Slope where she lives. Set against the backgrounds of Brooklyn and Harlem, Sayre challenges readers to confront superficial assumptions about race and beauty and breathes new life into the canon of middle-grade realistic fiction.

This book is pretty. I mean, the cover is beautiful, and the writing is solid, and the topics explored are timely and necessary. But the things that happen to Sophie are not nearly as pretty. She is constantly in a cycle of love/hate with Janet, her mother (at least for the first part of the novel), and her friend Allegra is a really terrible friend, even though Sophie tries to justify their friendship from time to time (thankfully she starts to realize the toxicity of their relationship over time.)

What I loved about this book was the way that Sayre explored alcoholism without entirely focusing on the alcoholism. What he does instead is explore the fallout, at least after introducing things more explicitly in the opening chapters. After Sophie's aunt moves in and her life starts to change dramatically, readers are given the opportunity to see Sophie come to the realization that life before, with her often-drunk mother and her father overseas, was not as bearable as she tried to make it out to be. In moments later on when she starts to stand up for herself in various situations, I wanted to cheer!

There's a lot of interesting food for thought, too, in terms of class/race and the joy that comes from the realization that one has finally found a community and a sense of belonging. Just wait for Sophie's trip to church, or her first trip to a hairdresser with actual black women cutting black women's hair (it is a glorious moment of the book!)

The plot isn't long or convoluted and the book will be a hit with older middle-grade and early YA readers (and anyone else interested in Sophie's story, of course.) In fact, a colleague noted that it's one of his 5th grader's favourite books! High praise, indeed.

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