Monday, April 14, 2014

Half a Chance by Cynthia Lord

My mother-in-law's photography hobby led her to tipping a canoe in a quagmire of lilypads and sending her expensive camera to the bottom of the lake. I've had my own adventures where my scared dog tipped the canoe jumping out, then tried to drown my husband by wrapping his body around his shoulders and head. Lucy Emery, the new kid, is not a klutz and while she takes pictures in a kayak and brings her dog with on one trip she is a cautious girl that doesn't have any disasters like me. She assimilates pretty quickly to her new life on the lake making friends with her friendly neighbors, the siblings Nate and Emily, who spend each day on Loon Patrol, their catchy phrase for observing the loons nesting on the lake. Like biologists-in-training, the two will report their daily observations to the Loon Preservation Committee office at the end of the summer. They let Lucy come with them to take pictures for a photography contest. Cynthia Lord is one of the few realistic fiction writers that can sweep me into a slower moving story. I admire how she crafts her plot, develops characters, writes memorable phrases, and creates tension through relationships. While the start is a little slow for me, it all comes together at the end with some strong messages.

As a twelve-year-old, Lucy is not new to moving to a new place. Her dad, a famous photographer, finds it hard to stay put in one place. When she moves from Massachusetts to a lakeside home in New Hampshire she struggles with being the new kid again. She knows that some will be interested in her at first only to go back to their old friends when they tire of her. When she meets Nate she finds that his childhood friend, Megan, is jealous that Lucy is invading her turf. When Emily and Nate invite Lucy to go on Loon Patrol it is easy to see why Megan is upset since she was the previous third wheel on Loon Patrol. Megan doesn't deal well with her anger and retaliates in a nasty way toward Lucy. Meanwhile Lucy wonders if Nate's friendship is real or temporary. When Lucy discovers her dad is judging a photography contest she decides to secretly enter. She wants her dad's unbiased opinion of her photography skills since she wants to follow his career path. She is full of doubts and insecurities about not being good enough in her relationships with others. Lucy justifies entering the contest by wanting to use the money to help Nate's sick grandma see the loons.

Lucy is shy and shows her uncertainty with making friends. She is sensitive to what others think of her. She texts Nate and then wonders if her one-word response was too blunt and adds another text. Her uncertainty captures what it is like growing up and learning to socialize, especially when a kid is somewhat interested in a boy. Lucy has never had a friend that is a boy and is somewhat conflicted, not recognizing her romantic feelings toward Nate. Nate helps Lucy with her photos for the contest and quite a bit of the dialogue and descriptions involve the art of photography. I liked the parallels between it and stories. "I imagined Dad beside me: 'It's pretty,' he'd say. 'But pretty isn't enough for  a great photograph. Show me why I care. What's the story?'" Storytelling is the same way. The reader must care for the characters and story for it to come alive and keep them reading. I have never stopped to think of photography in the same way as crafting a story.

Megan is not a one-dimensional villain and Lucy reacts to her meanness with kindness. She does this because she wants what is best for the loons and sets aside petty jealousy that is affecting her relationship with Megan. Both are interested in the same boy and Megan is rightfully upset about being excluded from the trio, she just reacts to it in an unhealthy way. When Megan sabotages Lucy's project, it is revealing that Lucy responds in a mature manner. Lucy never tattles on Megan and includes her in the project. She even uses her photos and compliments her. She doesn't stoop to the same levels as Megan even though she thinks some jealous thoughts. Instead she always keeps the big picture in mind which is what is best for the loons and how can the group accomplish this? Megan knows that she doesn't deserve Lucy's kindness and respect and in the end feels ashamed of her actions and apologizes to Lucy. The author shows the result of Lucy not reacting in anger to Megan that allows them to be civil to each other even though they both like Nate and don't want to share him with each other. Ironically, Nate is oblivious to their friction and mutual attraction to him.

Cynthia Lord does a nice job articulating feelings in regards to relationships that many readers might not know how to express in words. "I know what it feels like when you want to matter to someone and they don't notice. But I was still mad at Megan for deleting my photos and trying to take over my idea of the posters." While Lucy is mad at her she never retaliates in anger and the result is "Megan and I might not ever be good friends, ... but ...I was going to ...invite her. Because maybe we both wanted to try, and sometimes people are like shooting photos. It takes a bunch of misses before something good happens." Lucy knows her dad loves her but she wants her dad to notice her photography. And she wants to be good at it. She's afraid of failure and also brave at striking out and taking risks with her photography. When she uses the photo of Grandma Lilah, it took courage to choose it because she knew she'd be upsetting her friend, Nate.

The subplot of Nate's grandma losing her mind because of dementia is full of tension and authenticity. My mom is going through the same thing. She's in the phase of dementia where she recognizes that her mind is not working properly. Because I've experienced this illness in my personal life, I found the author's portrayal of Grandma Lilah very real and poignant. Nate is in denial of his grandma's illness and afraid of her not recognizing him. I know eventually my mom will also not know me. It fills me with sadness and is not an easy thing to deal with as an adult much less as a child. Lucy's actions force Nate to talk about it and deal with his grandma's illness in a healthy manner.

Friendship, family relationships, facing a loved one's illness, and being the new kid are just a few of the many themes the author splashes throughout the plot. Lucy's dad is a nice guy but is hard to live with as he likes to move and travel. As a famous photographer he likes change and the freshness it brings to his photos, "But really, I think Dad loves how good it feels to leave - to let go of the routine in an old place and start over somewhere else." I can actually relate to the dad. I enjoy change in routine because it makes me feel so alive. Luckily my husband has the same wanderlust as me giving me a best friend to traipse all over the world with. Lucy discusses with her dad photography because she knows it is what he loves and she does too. This shared passion helps her communicate with him although sometimes it seems one-sided. While her father loves her, he makes mistakes and isn't always sensitive toward her. The mother comes across as lonely and disappointed when Lucy doesn't want to do something with her. Yet, she doesn't force Lucy to come with on excursions. I wanted their relationship developed a bit more.

The reader will learn about loons and responsible behavior toward them. Boaters that get too close to loons scare them. The parents end up not feeding their babies enough food, spending too much time protecting them from the boaters and the result is the babies can starve to death. Lucy, Nate, and Emily decide to create posters to inform the public on appropriate behavior around the nesting birds. They eventually include Megan in the project and while she can be obnoxious, Lucy deals with her in a way that helps them reach a truce. Lucy is upset by an incident of a predator attacking the loons. I remember as a kid struggling with the death of bunnies and deer. I grew up on a nature center and it took me a long time to understand why the deer had to be shot periodically to reduce their numbers. This can open up discussions on the balance of ecosystems, human care and responsibility toward the environment, and human impact on animal habitation. If readers like this aspect, they can try other books with similar themes such as, "The One and Only Ivan," "Hoot," "Julie," or "Endangered." This book would make a great read aloud for grade 3 - 5 students.

4 Smileys

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