Monday, October 19, 2015

Middle School Book Club - Waiting for Normal, by Leslie Conner

Last week I helped with the book club at the local middle school.  The school librarian selects 5 or 6 books each year and each month different kids sign up to read and discuss one of the books.  Various adults (parents or public library staff) volunteer to each lead one of the discussion groups.  I led the discussion of Leslie Conner's Waiting for Normal, which tells the story of 12-year old Addie who has had to grow up too fast and assume adult responsibilities too soon due to her mother's erratic and irresponsible behavior, which the book seems to imply may be caused by bi-polar disorder.

At the beginning of the book, Addie and her mother move into a small trailer, after losing their house due to her mother spending the mortgage payments on her latest harebrained scheme.  Prior to that, their family was split up when Addie's mom divorced Addie's step-father and lost custody of their two younger daughters due to severe neglect.  Throughout the book Addie must deal with her mother's eccentric behavior, while she yearns for a normal life with her sisters and step-father.  She is befriended by Soula, who owns the convenience store across the street, and Elliot, Soula's clerk and best friend.

In the end, Addie's mom leaves her to fend for herself for several days, after announcing she is pregnant by her latest boyfriend.  Addie accidentally starts a fire while trying to make cocoa that destroys the trailer, and finally draws the attention of CPS.  She is sent to live with her paternal grandfather, and after several months, he mother finally agrees to give her up and let her step-father adopt her, finally giving her a normal life. (I reviewed this book in a previous post, Middle Grade Mini-Reviews).

Discussion Questions
These are some questions I prepared in advance, though we didn't necessarily get to all of them, and I just let the discussion flow naturally.

1.  Do you think "Waiting for Normal" is a good title for this book?  What does "normal" mean to Addie?  How would you define normal?

2.  Addie says her family has "many twists and turns".  What do you think she means by this?

3.  Addie comments that she is good at getting used to things and has been doing it all her life.  What do you think she means by this?  Do you think this is a good thing?  Why or why not?

4.  Besides Addie, who was your favorite character and why?

5.  What do you think Addie's mom meant by the "love of learning" and why did she think she had it, but Addie didn't.  Would you agree?

6.  Addie describes her mother's behavior as "all or nothing"; what did she mean by this?  How would you explain her mother's odd and eccentric behaviors?

7.  Who do you think behaved more like a responsible adult, Addie or her mother?  In what way?  Do you think it's fair or appropriate for a 12 year old to have to be so responsible?

8.  Addie, Soula, and Elliot discuss heroes, how everyday people need heroes and can be  heroes for someone else.  Do you agree?  Who are your heroes?

9.  Why do you think Addie didn't tell anyone how bad things were at home with her mother?  What would you do in her place?

10.  What do you think about Addie's mom having another baby? 

11.  Do people have to be related to be a family?  What from this story shows that?

12.  Did you like the ending?  Was it realistic?  Why do you think Addie's mom finally gave her up and let Dwight adopt her?

13.  What do you think happens after the book ends?  Do think things will work out for Addie's mom and Pete?  Do you think she will do any better with her new baby?

How It Went
This is the second year I've worked with the book club, and in the past had some very good discussions.  But the group today just didn't seem as into it for some reason.  It was a smaller group than expected, with only 6 of the 13 signed up actually showing up, so I think we were just below the "critical mass" needed for a good discussion.  Two of them admitted they hadn't finished the book and a couple of them didn't seem like they were interested at all.  It was also unusually noisy and harder to hear and be heard than usual.

The discussion didn't get as deep and cover some of the nuances, or have as many varied opinions, as I would have hoped, but we did manage to cover the main parts of the story.  One of the biggest surprises to me was how different their perception of Addie's mother was from mine. Almost all of them said Addie's mother was their favorite character, and while they admitted she was very irresponsible, they were much more forgiving of her mistakes than I was.  Also, they were all much more optimistic about the future and felt that she had learned from her mistakes and would do better with the new baby.

My perception was very different.  I found Addie's mother to be selfish and irresponsible, and a terrible mother, and despite the allusions to bipolar disorder, I had no sympathy for her.  I found myself feeling very angry and disgusted with the things she did.  I also felt that she only gave Addie up because now she had a new boyfriend and a new baby, and was tired of her old life, and wanted to simple walk away and start with her shiny new life, and I have little hope she will do any better in the future.

One of the girls said her mother also read the book, and felt exactly the way I did, and the librarian did as well.  I found it very interesting that other adults, who all happened to be mothers themselves, were much harder on Addie's mom than the tweens were.  I would have expected them to be a littler more outraged on Addie's behalf at all the unfair situations and responsibilities she had to deal with because of her mother's bad decisions and behavior.  I wish we had been able to discuss that aspect further, but unfortunately we were out of time.  I think this would be an interesting book for a mother-daughter book club to discuss and see if the trend is universal.

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