Wren is a 12-year-old going through a difficult time when her parents split at the same time as she’s going through a split of her own, with her frenemy at school. She loses herself in special effects makeup videos on YouTube, which provide an escape for her, and discovers that she’s pretty good at making new looks – and new personalities – to try on. When her mom decides to up and move to a new town for a fresh start for them both, she welcomes the chance to start over. She makes a new friend and finds herself chosen to be the makeup artist for her new school’s upcoming production of Wicked. And she discovers that she actually kind of likes her new stepmom – as long as she doesn’t let on to her mom, who makes her feel guilty. The thing is, Wren’s mom isn’t doing well at all. She’s sleeping a lot; she’s put a lock on her door, and she’s not always where she says she is – especially work – and her stories aren’t matching up. Wren knows something is going on with her mom, but she doesn’t know exactly what, only that her mom gets angry at her if she even tries to talk to her. It’s only during Wicked‘s opening performances that Wren realizes something is very wrong with her mom, and that the new life she’s been trying so hard to build is set on a very thin foundation.
Barbara Dee is an incredible middle grade writer who gets to the heart of social issues tweens are dealing with. In Maybe He Just Likes You (2019), she examined the sexual harassment of young girls that begins in middle school and earlier, and how girls’ voices are brushed off as being “dramatic” or “unable to take a joke”. My Life in the Fish Tank (2020) saw a middle school girl dealing with a sibling’s mental illness, and Halfway Normal (2017) is about a middle school girl returning to school after undergoing cancer treatment. But Ms. Dee realizes that the one Big Issue isn’t the Only Issue, so she creates layered, complex stories of the overwhelming crush of events and emotions that make up the life of a middle schooler: friends (or lack thereof); crushes, relationships with family members. Here, in Violets are Blue, Wren is navigating middle school relationships while being in the middle of her parents’ divorce, her mother’s depression and opioid addiction, and the complicated feelings she has about her father and his new family. What a phenomenal read – Barbara Dee is just amazing.