Sunday, June 27, 2021

REVIEW: After Zero (book) by Christina Collins

After Zero is Middle Grade contemporary fiction.

This review contains spoilers.


Content warnings for this book: mental illness, anxiety, grief, child death.

Up until about 7 months ago, 12-year-old Elise was homeschooled. However, she was always jealous of her friend Mel's stories about school, so she managed to get her mom to enroll her in public school. Unfortunately, the experience didn't go quite the way she'd hoped. Elise now spends each day tallying every word she speaks. Some days her tally is at one or two, but the best days are when she's at zero. She appreciates teachers who don't require her to participate in discussions - it's one of the reasons why she likes Miss Looping's English class, where all she's ever expected to do is write.

It's not that she doesn't ever speak. She talks a little, at home. But she understands that even her home life isn't quite the same as other people's. Her mother keeps secrets from her and doesn't seem to care about her. Elise didn't even know what birthdays were until her friend Mel's 7th birthday. As Elise learns more about her mother and her own past, she struggles to figure out what to do when every word she says has the potential to make things worse.

This is one of my old ARCs that I got at a conference and then never read. It turned out to be an unexpected gem.

I'd likely have never picked this up on my own. I don't read a lot of Middle Grade fiction, and when I do, it's normally fantasy, sci-fi, mysteries, or light and fluffy contemporaries. I generally avoid serious Middle Grade realistic fiction like the plague.

In the author's note at the end, Collins wrote that this book was based both on the Brothers Grimm tale "The Twelve Brothers" (I didn't know it and looked it up - very loosely based) and on her own adolescent experience with low-profile selective mutism. I think I'd heard of selective mutism before, but never in much depth. In Elise's case, she could speak at home but experienced great anxiety about speaking at school and elsewhere, and her selective mutism eventually began to transition to complete silence (progressive mutism).

I've struggled with anxiety for most of my life - not Elise's specific kind of anxiety (although aspects of her story prompted me to recall incidents in my childhood that I'd forgotten), but the feelings are very similar even if the details differ. I could definitely relate to the way Elise discovered that her efforts to deal with her fears had further trapped her, and to her difficulty communicating what was going on with her. Although I practically flew through this book, it was a hard read at times and had me in tears by the end.

I haven't read many books that have dealt with anxiety that I could relate to to some degree, but this is one I'd recommend. I think it could be helpful for a child who's dealing with it but doesn't have the words to explain it, and for adults who, like me, may not know much about selective mutism and might not realize that there's maybe more going on with that "shy" child in their life. Things turn out well for Elise in the end - it disappointed me a little that none of the help she later received was shown on-page, but I doubt there'd have been a good way to do that without making things seem too quick and easy, so maybe that's for the best. Her mother (also dealing with mental illness, but whose story was more in the background) sought treatment for herself as well, so it was a positive and hopeful ending all around.

The one thing that didn't really work for me: Beady. He was a stuffed raven owned by one of Elise's teachers, and a potential fantasy element in a book that could otherwise be considered purely realistic fiction. There were indications that he might have been coming alive and helping Elise out at crucial moments. Or the bird incidents were coincidences, and the Beady stuff was just a mystery that Elise's teacher helped encourage. It wasn't terrible, but it blurred the line between fantasy and reality a little more than I'd have liked, especially considering how one other incident that blended realism and fantasy turned out.

No comments:

Post a Comment