It’s only natural that 12-year-old Sarah Nelson would look for signs that she’s going crazy. Sarah’s mother tried to drown her and her twin brother when they were 2 (only Sarah survived) and now lives in a mental institution; her academic father drowns his sorrows every night with a bottle of booze. Now that summer has arrived in Texas, she has the added worries of completing the upcoming family tree project in seventh grade and trying to find a boy to French kiss so she can keep up with her girl pals.

Summer also brings a teacher’s challenge: Write letters to a favorite book character. Sarah selects Atticus from To Kill a Mockingbird, and her correspondence becomes a way to help make sense of the world around her. Realistic but without more intensity than middle grade readers can handle, Sarah’s pitch-perfect narration captures her frustration in trying to communicate with her distant father (“He is hard, frozen ice cream and I am a weak spoon.”) and the realization that she not only wants, but also needs to meet her mother.

But life isn’t all hard ice cream. Sometimes it’s as sweet and warm as apple pie, just like the ones Sarah’s elderly neighbor shares with her. In the midst of this summer of great changes (physical and emotional alike), Sarah discovers her first taste of love with her babysitter’s younger brother, who shares her fondness for delectable vocabulary and can keep her darkest secrets.

Like Atticus, this determined girl faces her challenges with bravery. Have some tissues ready as you come to the bittersweet but never saccharine ending of Karen Harrington’s first novel for young readers. This is a story with sure signs of brilliance.

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