Danika reviews Drum Roll, Please by Lisa Jenn Bigelow

Starting From Here by Lisa Jenn Bigelow is one of my favourite YA books, so of course when I heard that she had a bisexual middle grade book coming out, I was eager to pick it up. Drum, Roll Please definitely lived up to those expectations. Melly is 13, and the day before she was dropped off at Camp Rockaway, her parents told her they were getting divorced. She’s had no time to process this before she’s tossed into this new environment for 2 weeks, and even her best friend being there doesn’t seem to help, especially when Olivia is too busy hanging out with her crush to remember her. Melly may be a drum player, but she has trouble finding her own voice. One way or another, these two weeks will change that.

I loved this book. It’s such a quiet read–fittingly. It’s about music and friendship and divorce and growing up and crushes, but mostly it’s just about Melly finding herself and being true to herself. She’s someone who is used to being in the background, to following along with whatever her best friend, Olivia, wants to do. But her parents’ divorce and the atmosphere of Rockaway Camp shift things, making it difficult for her to stay passive. Melly is placed in a band, and she has to find a way to communicate with her bandmates as well as find her own voice.

Meanwhile, her relationship with Olivia is complicated and thorny. Olivia is at first clingy, until she gets a crush and spends all of her free time with him. Melly is hurt, but she also isn’t sharing anything with Olivia. She keeps telling her that she’s fine and doesn’t want to talk about it. It takes one of her bandmates, Adeline, to break Melly’s shell, so she can finally talk about how she’s feeling. I loved reading about this tiny clueless bisexual’s first foray into crushing on a girl. She gets butterflies in her stomach, and then: “I looked at her hard, trying to understand. But I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, so how was I supposed to recognize it when I saw it?” Been there! The two of them are very cute, and I was happy to see Melly reaching out to develop new connections. The word bisexual isn’t used, but Melly does talk about having a long-term crush on a boy before.

I appreciated the complexity of the relationships and their dynamics. Olivia may not have been there for Melly as much as she wanted, but Melly wasn’t communicating with Olivia. Her parents may not have been fair to her to tell her just before she left, but maybe she wasn’t being fair to them, either. Melly needs to find herself and get in touch with her own emotions, but that doesn’t mean abandoning her empathy. Relationships–of all kinds–are complicated. Communication is difficult. And Drum Roll, Please doesn’t try to simplify it. We can be sympathetic from one angle and cruel from another. There aren’t easy answers.

Although I never went to a music camp (mine was theoretically a Christian camp, but that was mostly lip service to get funding), I thought Drum Roll, Please really captured the atmosphere of summer camp. Within a day, it feels completely normal, but it’s so different from the rest of your life. The activities, the atmosphere, the people–it’s as if this time exists in a bubble. Friendships tend to develop easily, and you feel like you’ve known these people much longer than a week or two. But once you leave, the memories seem unreal. Most of these people you’ll never see again, except perhaps at camp next year. Despite its ephemeral nature, that time felt formative–it definitely is in Melly’s case.

I’m so happy to see another queer middle grade book out there. This is a great addition to the genre, alongside Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee, though I feel that Drum Roll, Please is a half step up in maturity–right between middle grade and YA. I definitely recommend this, whether for a tween reader or an adult. I really got invested in Melly’s story–and who can resist that cover!

Danika reviews Starting From Here by Lisa Jenn Bigelow

StartingFromHere

The last time I kissed Rachel Greenstein we lay in the bed of Scarlett, my Ford pickup, watching the sun sink beyond West Lake.

From this very first sentence, you can already tell this is not going to start on a happy note. Starting From Here follows Colby during a time of crisis in her life. Her mother died two years ago, her dad is away long-distance trucking six days of the week, she’s failing Chemistry (and maybe Algebra), and her almost-girlfriend just broke up with her. Rachel’s breakup with Colby brings all of her abandonment issues to the surface. When she finds a stray by the side of the road, she decides to take him in [minor spoilers, highlight to read] but in trying to coax the dog to her, he shies away and gets hit by a car. And then has to have a leg amputated. Did I mention this book starts off bleak? [end spoilers] Colby is very likeable. She is funny and kind most of the time, and has a close relationship with her (gay) best friend, Van. She socializes mostly in her school’s Rainbow Alliance, but underneath this is a nagging loneliness in coming home to an empty trailer.

I really sympathized with Colby, even when she wallows in her sadness or lashes out at people. She struggles between wanting to tell her dad that she needs him and at the same time tries to be strong for him, and because that’s what her mom asked her to do. She struggles to come out to him. She pours her love and attention into Mo, her new dog, and tries her best to manage the responsibility of a pet while working and going to school and raising herself. [mild spoilers] Even when she finds another relationship–which is oh-so-cute–she can’t help but see everything and everyone as a threat to herself. She begins to withdraw from her life, even the people who love her. [end spoilers] 

The book is easy to read, the characters are well-rounded and loveable, and the dog is so cute! Ah, I’m a sucker for a dog story. But it really is about a dark spot in Colby’s life, and even though it’s written with humor, it can be a little heart-wrenching at times. I’ll admit, I cried. A couple of times. Again, dog stories! They get me! [spoilers] Don’t worry, the dog doesn’t die. [end spoilers] I read Starting From Here in a day, hooked on Colby’s roller coaster of a story, cheering her on and chastising her in turn. Colby makes a lot of mistakes, but you can feel her pain coming off the page, so I couldn’t help forgiving her, especially as she takes responsibility for them. Buckle in for a lot of angst if you pick this one up, but I definitely think it’s worth it. (Especially if you’re a dog person!) Starting From Here is definitely now on my list of favorite teen lesbian books, and one I would happily recommend.