I'm a sucker for a book that takes place in the Philadelphia area. I lived in South Jersey, just across the bridge from Philly, for the first 18 years of my life. I'm a Jersey girl, but my heart was always in Philly. Dad and I went to all the major sports teams' games: 76ers, Phillies, Flyers, and, of course, our beloved Eagles. Yes, they're Super Bowl Champs now, but when I was growing up, they were a metaphor for the city itself: scrappy, decidedly unglamorous, and never the winner its big brothers are (New York, Dallas).
So, my heart swelled when I picked up Every Shiny Thing by Cordelia Jensen and Laurie Morrison, because it's a Philly book. It's full of references to Philadelphia stuff that really brought me back to my hometown.
My heart also swelled because Every Shiny Thing is a lovely, warmhearted read that middle grade kids from just about anywhere will enjoy. It's not a perfect book, but it's a story with depth and complexity. The main characters feel real, and they're as down-to-earth as the city the story calls home.
Lauren and Sierra come from different worlds. Lauren is a typical suburban kid with parents of means and an autistic brother. Sierra, on the other hand, is in the foster care system because her father is in prison and her mother is a raging alcoholic who cannot care for her 12-year-old daughter. When Sierra is placed with foster parents in the home next door to Lauren, the girls become fast friends. This doesn't go over well with Lauren's oldest pal, Audrey (WHY can't three girls be friends in a book???), who gives Lauren the cold shoulder for much of the story.
Every Shiny Thing takes a pretty dark turn when (spoiler!) Lauren becomes a kleptomaniac, shoplifting from stores and stealing items from people's houses. She has what she thinks is a good reason for her thievery: she wants to sell the items she steals, which she believes are totally extraneous items to their owners, and give the money to her brother's old occupational therapist to help defer costs for other people's OT sessions. But Lauren forces Sierra to hide the stolen goods and the money she makes selling the stuff online, even though Sierra begs her to stop. In addition, Sierra's mother, whom she hears from infrequently, is in and out of rehab, as well as in and out of the arms of abusive, alcoholic men.
Lauren tells her story in prose, while Sierra's narrative is in verse. This device is a bit clunky. I never truly understood why Sierra's story had to be told in verse. Was this just to give the book a little something extra? Was it to set off Sierra's plight as being more tragically poetic than Lauren's? I could buy that, but the verse chapters don't have the emotional impact I think they're supposed to have. Sierra speaks of kaleidoscopes and shifting colors, but I'm not sure I get the metaphor here.
Regardless, the girls' stories are both compelling. Sierra is caught between a rock and a hard place with Lauren, with her mother, with her foster family- wanting to give of herself, but wanting not to be hurt yet again. Lauren has a good heart, but she's going about her fundraising in a most repugnant way. The authors do a great job of building the tension throughout both narratives, and the ending is quite satisfying, if a bit long-winded.
I have two beefs with Every Shiny Thing, and they're both minor but persistent. First, the kids in this story just don't sound like seventh graders to me. They come off as more like fifth or sixth graders. I spend most of my days with 11-14-year-olds, and their voices are all distinct. Seventh graders today are more sophisticated than Lauren seems to be. Instead, she sounds much more like one of the fifth grade kids in Wonder. My other issue with the book is that the authors seemed to have sprinkled in diverse characters just for the sake of having diversity. There's a black and white couple, a white and black couple, a family with two dads, and an Asian family, but why? I'm not saying it's a bad thing to have diverse characters in a book. On the contrary, I think that diverse voices can enrich a story and add dimension to a cast of characters. Here, it felt to me that the authors were just covering bases: black and white couple? Check! Asian family? Check! Gay parents? Check! Diversity achieved! It seemed more of an afterthought than something organic to the story.
Still, I did enjoy Every Shiny Thing quite a bit. It's a very readable book, and I stayed up late finishing it one night because I really wanted to know what was going to happen to the girls. They are characters the reader can truly invest in and care about. And the mention of a Brian Dawkins jersey every so often won me over entirely!