The Daily Monocle

Critical book reviews from a literary skeptic.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

This Girl is Different by J. J. Johnson

Posted by J. P. Wickwire

Evie isn't your average teenage girl. She's been homeschooled by her counterculture mother since birth, never done schoolwork in a textbook, and spends her days barefoot outside. But during her last year of schooling, Evie decides to make a change, and attends the local high school for her senior year.

Having been homeschooled from birth by a counterculture mother (though not as extreme as Evie's mom), and rarely having used a textbook myself, I'm always leery of things written about homeschoolers. As a community, we’re often falsely characterized as under-socialized, underprivileged weirdoes who live on the fringes of society away from modernity and mainstream activity. And maybe somewhere there are homeschoolers like that, although they are few and far between.

So when I picked up This Girl is Different by J. J. Johnson, I was prepared to condemn with red pens and an angry e-mail. The press release I read for this book said something along the lines of "Evie… is going to experience authority, having friends her own age for the first time, and her first love." So naturally, I was skeptical. This description makes it sound like Evie has lived her life in a bubble… which is possibly the most common misconception about homeschoolers in existence.

But when I actually got around to reading the book, all of my preconceived notions flew out the window. Why? Well, because although Evie is different (as the title implies), these differences have less to do with her being homeschooled, and more to do with her being a driven, offbeat young woman. In fact, I think that the homeschooling element is more of a plot device to make the main character more interesting. Evie could just as easily have transferred from another public school. She is by far the most dimensional character. Love-interest Rajas is a bit flat; cheerleader Jacinda, a bit more so. But these secondary characters do augment the story in their own way.

Johnson’s writing is in the succinct first-person-present-tense style that has taken the YA market by storm. Both confident and temperate, her writing never moves too far into any one extreme and manages to stay simple without being boring.

This is definitely a character-driven novel. The plot itself isn’t a thriller—it’s not action oriented, or even particularly engaging. Evie is this story’s sole driving force. Thankfully, she drives it very well.

Johnson didn’t dwell on negatives of either schooling situation—she didn't make this book a case against homeschooling (which is what I'm used to). In fact, she was pretty neutral on both standpoints.

This Girl is Different is a teen book of self-discovery… but not Evie's self-discovery. Rather, she helps the other characters solidify who they are, and who they want to be. And although the plot is a bit convoluted (or predictable) at times, it's a refreshing take on the girl-meets-boy-in-high-school tale. More than social norms or misconceptions, This Girl is Different is about the impact of free speech, and the importance of standing up for what's right… even if you're standing alone.

In short, I liked this book. And yes, J. J. Johnson, you just earned the homeschooler's stamp of approval.

Author's Website
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