Sunday, July 22, 2012

Threw a Curveball into my Day

Curveball: The Year I Lost My Grip
Jordan Sonnenblick has this uncanny ability to take a serious subject, battle the dramatic situation with bittersweet class, and inject the funny that makes such a serious topic digestible. I don't know how he does it, but I keep coming back for more. So when Curveball: The Year I Lost My Grip was released, I knew it was going to hit the ball out of the park (pun intended!).

Peter always assumed he would enter 9th grade with his best friend AJ and their dynamic pitcher/catcher combo would land them on varsity. What he didn't expect that ignoring that clicking pain in his elbow would cause his elbow to actually fall apart and never go back together again. After much surgery and recovery time, Peter gets the life-altering news that his baseball career is over. Just over. He can't bring himself to tell AJ the truth, so he starts spending time with his grandfather over the summer. His grandfather has always been a photographer and has taught Peter a lot over the years. But with all the time he is spending with Grampa leads him to believe something isn't quite right.

Grampa is forgetting things and spacing out a lot. Peter tries to talk to his mother about it, but she doesn't want to admit anything is wrong. When Grampa gives Peter all his camera, Peter shakes off the feeling that something is really wrong. Without baseball in his life, he needs a new focus and begins to enjoy his new elective: Photography. Of course it doesn't hurt that the only other freshman in the class is a girl Peter finds whole-heartedly intriguing named Angelika. Peter and Angelika begin photographing the sports teams for the school newspaper, but despite his great year at school, something is still tugging on Peter's conscience about his grandfather. But will anyone realize how bad it has gotten before it is too late?

Oh, dear, dear Sonnenblick. I don't know how you do it. Life-altering injury combined with Alzheimer's Disease and light-hearted humor? Should be absurd or tactless, right? Well, it isn't. It's beautiful. It is bitter-sweet and realistic and beautiful. All hard situations in life are peppered with a little laughter where you just have to look at how crappy things have gotten and laugh. I remember going to a break out session in a conference about Finding the Funny with LD. In the session, the presenter explained how she got her epileptic brother a dog to lift his spirits after he lost his job and his wife left him. Know what happened next? Her brother's lab had a seizure and was diagnosed with epilepsy. She said she and her brother stood at the vet's office laughing. Because, really, what else can you do at that point? Is the epilepsy funny? Of course not, but the irony of the epileptic dog to make the epileptic brother feel better is so bitter you just have to laugh at the situation. This story always reminds me of Sonnenblick. He knows the fine balance between lightening up a sad situation with some witty remarks and situation irony and the tacky fun-poking at a serious topic. And with Sonnenblick, it is never tacky.

He creates a story where Peter is suffering his own life-altering trauma, but in the midst of healing and moving on with his life, he must acknowledge that the man who has always been such a huge part of Peter's life has irrevocably changed. This seems like a double whammy, and by gods it is. This is also a beautifully handled story about a family fighting the knowledge that their father/grandfather is suffering from an incurable disease, a disease that always tends to be harder on the family than the victim itself. When Grampa starts to forget things and space out, nobody wants to admit aloud when they are pretty sure is happening. They ignore the signs or explain them away until they find themselves in a situation where their loved one could seriously hurt themselves. As a granddaughter and great-granddaughter, I have experienced this denial first hand. It isn't neglectful, it is actually steeped in unconditional love where you can't imagine the strong family member you know and love slipping away. Peter and his family are the embodiment of this struggle, and it was written beautifully. 

This is a book for a wide variety of students from early middle readers through high school students, because while the language is simple, the story has layers of depth that would appeal to a wide range of students. It is beautifully written, just as all Sonnenblick's books are. I also love how the inclusion of baseball might draw in a boy reader to enjoy a story that is so much more than just a sports story. But sometimes you just need the hook to get them in. And the characters are all wonderful, brilliantly developed, and easily relatable. You will finish this book and be as blown away as I was. Bravo, Mr. Sonnenblick. You have done it again!

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