It’s Middle Grade March (#MGMarch on social media), and I’m working my way through some incredible Middle Grade in my pile. Let’s start with Elizabeth Atkinson’s Fly Back, Agnes; a book I did not want to put down.
Agnes is a 12-year-old living in Vermont with her mother, who Agnes sees as a “bulldozer” that just rolls over everything in her path. Agnes is frustrated by her mother’s pushiness and opinions about Agnes’s clothes and imminent “becoming a woman”; she really isn’t crazy about her mother’s mumbling artist boyfriend, Richard, and Richard’s weird and obnoxious kid, George. She misses her father, who lives in a nearby town, where he’s a cellist and teaches at a university. She misses her sister, Viva, who’s pulled away from their family entirely. She feels betrayed by her best friend, Megan, who’s become enchanted with the new mean girl, Lux. So when her mother announces that they’re moving to Kansas for the summer, for a project Richard’s been hired to do – despite Agnes having made plans to work at an animals shelter – she has had it. It all starts with a white lie, so she can spend the summer with her dad, who’s housesitting for a friend. She’s thrilled to have the summer with her father, but he’s finishing up his dissertation, so he doesn’t have a lot of time to spend with her, leaving Agnes to wander the town and decide to take on a persona that isn’t Agnes at all. She becomes Chloe, an actress-dancer 14-year-old who has the life Agnes desperately wants. Even as she makes friends in town – a young woman named Stella, Stella’s grandmother, Birdie, and a cute 15-year-old named Fin – the lies get bigger and deeper. Agnes wants to tell them the truth, especially as each reveals their own secrets to her, but she just can’t seem to find a way out.
Two major themes in Fly Back, Agnes are secrets and identities. Agnes is struggling with her identity because she’s on the cusp of “womanhood” – getting her period – something that, for her, is a sign that her childhood is over. She sees her visit to her father as a chance to escape the life she’s in, and tries a new identity on for size while she’s away. Being the main character, she’s the most fleshed out: biracial, with a part-Korean father and American mother, she has her mother’s freckles and curly red hair and her father’s skin tone. Her friends are ready to take on the tween/teen mantle, consumed with their smartphones and appearances, and it feels like a betrayal to Agnes, especially when she overhears mean girl Lux talking with them behind Agnes’s back at a sleepover. Stella and Fin have their own secrets, but they haven’t created a new persona: their identities are wrapped up in their secrets, and their trust in Agnes makes her feel guilty. Agnes’s parents are less fleshed out but have enough background to give us a pretty good picture of them. I wanted to learn more about Viva, but she and Megan were both there to give Agnes more depth, and ultimately, that was fine with me.
Fly Back, Agnes, has great pacing, good characters, and is a story I can’t wait to booktalk to my middle graders. It’s relatable, with (mostly) likable characters, and an interesting mini-plot with rehabilitating wild birds. It’s a good add to your realistic fiction collections.