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2 March 2012 HAPPY FAMILIES by Tanita S. Davis, Knopf, May 2012, 288p., ISBN: 978-0-375-86966-2


“We can work it out.

We can work it out.”

-- Lennon/McCartney


“Ysabel stares fixedly at the tabletop. My father smiles vaguely at the waitress, leaned away from the table so she can bustle around him, but there’s a stiffness to his face. The slope of his shoulders telegraphs hurt, and I look down at my plate, wishing I was hungry, wishing that we were just all here for real, being together like before.

“But Ysabel has it right—we’re here to say something to each other. And as the waitress bustles away, I decide there’s no time like the present.

“’We don’t know you, Dad,’ I repeat quietly, looking up at him. ‘No offense, but…I don’t want to know either. Not…the Christine part.’ I shrug. ‘I’m sorry, but…it’s how I feel.’

“My father tries to smile, but the attempt falls short. His mouth twitches. ‘Well, that was the risk, wasn’t it?’ he says finally, his voice threaded with weariness. ‘I had hoped that you would never…that we would never be…’ He stops, and everything hangs, for a moment, in that silence, which goes on forever. I shift my feet and pick up my fork, drawing away a piece of shredded lettuce from my taco and chasing it around my plate. Dad finally clears his throat. I look up at him, and there is a kindness and a tiredness and grief in his eyes. ‘I hope you both get a chance to know me again.’

“I look away. Dad wants me to understand this and be okay with things, but I can’t. I can’t understand this…thing he’s doing. I don’t want to lose my father in trade for someone named Christine, but he’s already gone. I don’t know how to take that, or what to do. I don’t know how to deal with this Christine person he’s left behind him.

“I just want my dad back.”


When we first meet twin teens Ysabel and Justin Nicholas, they are in ninth grade and it is the “before” time. They are very different from one another and both are very talented. Ysabel is a gifted artist, creating glass beads and jewelry with a miniature propane blowtorch, a small kiln, and rods of glass. Justin is the gifted academic and freshman phenom of the debate team.


After a few introductory chapters we are fast-forwarded into the following year, the “after” time – after their father has been accidentally discovered (by his father-in-law) to be dressing and living, when away from home, as a woman named Christine. After Justin has subsequently dropped off of the debate team and broken up with his girlfriend.


The story told in HAPPY FAMILIES, is that of Ysabel and Justin going to visit their father for a week. It is their first reunion with him since he was “discovered” and subsequently moved an hour away from the family. It is a week of honesty and tension and fears and frustration and a therapist and support groups – both online and in person. It is a story of love and of hope and of family and how being true to one’s self can really make a mess of things.


“Girls will be boys and boys will be girls

It’s a mixed up muddled up shook up world…”

--Ray Davies, “Lola”


Now, I know what many of you are thinking at this moment: Here we go again, pushing the envelope of tween literature. Now we have to defend the inclusion in the collection of yet another book about unnatural, perverse behavior that will cause outrage amongst certain parents when they find their kids reading it.


And all I can tell you is that you need to choose to either be in the light or be in the dark. The exceptional quality of the writing here, the sensitivity and intelligence of the writing here, the consistently positive nature of the story told here, and the extent to which the story greatly educated me about a topic of which I was quite ignorant, without ever once becoming didactic, makes HAPPY FAMILIES a book of excellent literary quality that is unquestionably worthy of and age appropriate for placement in middle school and high school collections.


I am so happy to have plucked this jewel from the stacks.


Richie Partington, MLIS
Richie's Picks http://richiespicks.com
Moderator http://groups.yahoo.com/group/middle_school_lit/ http://slisweb.sjsu.edu/people/faculty/partingtonr/partingtonr.php


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