Monday, December 4, 2017

Just Sayin' by Dandi Daley Mackall, 2017

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Just Sayin' tells the story of an almost-blended family that almost falls apart before it even begins. 11 year-old Cassie Callahan is staying with her grandmother while her mom, Jennifer, recovers from a difficult breakup from her fiance, Trent. Cassie, along with Trent's kids, Nick and Julie, are trying to figure out why their parents' relationship ended so abruptly and searching for a way to bring them back together. Meanwhile, the kids get caught up in a game show that encourages the "art" of insults, and learn along the way that our words have much more power than they think.

In a way that only Dandi can accomplish, this story weaves together, in a contemporary way, an old-time game show, letter writing, outstanding vocabulary, and reminders from God's word that taming our tongue is both difficult and important!

(178 pages)

Man, Dandi Daley Mackall is versatile. I originally grew to love her Starlight Animal Shelter horse series a long time ago, and then I rediscovered her when I started receiving books for review from her publishing company Tyndale and they sent me Larger-Than-Life Lara (a book told in "school assignment" format by a girl whose overweight classmate was bullied) and With Love, Wherever You Are (a retelling of her grandparents' romance while both were serving in Europe during WWII). Now we get something quite different yet again with Just Sayin,' which is told entirely through letters and texts exchanged between the characters.

It's a very interesting narration gimmick, and one that works really well here. I had a little trouble suspending disbelief for the duration of the book (because let's be honest, no one–let alone children–regularly writes such detailed, vulnerable letters to friends, family members, and new acquaintances). I managed, though, and I'm glad I did because Just Sayin' really is a very good read.

The story of the split between Nick's dad and Cassie's mom so soon before their marriage is an interesting one, if a little simplified at times. With just 180 pages to work with, Mackall didn't really have space to flesh the nuances of the situation out as well as she could have otherwise. I was rooting for them to join together as a family once more, of course, but I cared a lot more about Cassie, Nick, and Nick's little sister Julie than I did about the parents. I was particularly mad at Cassie's mom–because I don't care what sort of emotional drama you're going through, up and abandoning your daughter at your mom's house indefinitely is not okay.

But forget the parents, it's really all about the kids. Cassie's and Nick's letters are so warm and funny, and I love the way they try out all sorts of nasty insults on each other. They're big fans of insults, and they're almost professional-level good at dishing them out. Cassie begins to have a sort of "crisis of faith" during the book, in which she starts reading the Bible at her pastor's urging and realizes that some insults are unkind and un-Christlike. This is an interesting side story, though I also struggle with the idea that a kid her age would be mature enough to come up with these sorts of complex biblical analyses (let alone be convicted enough to consider implementing them!).

Really, my main issue with Just Sayin' is that the characters act pretty unrealistically both for their age and for the format of their correspondence. But it's such a fun and heartwarming book–and the kids' letters are just so laugh-out-loud hilarious!–that I can't help but love it anyway.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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