Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Disturbed Girl's Dictionary by NoNieqa Ramos

Macy is a problem student at school.  Students and teachers are afraid of her because of her outbursts.  The only people who aren't frightened of Macy are her best friend Alma, who is so smart and kind that everyone loves her, and George who is ignored by most of the school because he wears a helmet and seems to have mental issues.  Her home life is worse.  Her father is in prison and her mom has a series of male "guests" who spend the night and use drugs with her mother.  Finally, her younger brother Zach has been taken from the home by Child Protective Services and it feels like Macy is the only one trying to get him back.  Things only get worse from there and Macy chronicles her life in a dictionary she writes herself.

Picture me sitting with a slack jaw upon finishing this book as I try to grapple with everything that I've just read.  I had a slow start getting in to Macy's story because she references events that haven't yet happened and I was a little confused, but thing start to come together quickly.  Ramos does a masterful job of leading the reader slowly into the darkness of Macy's life.  We start with problems at school and her mother's many guests and Macy's ever-present hunger.  I get the picture quickly that things are not good and that Macy is a mess - although it's equally obvious that Macy is much smarter than her teachers give her credit for.  You can also see that hope is not lost for her because she is inquisitive and cares deeply for her brother and Alma.  But revelation by revelation we find out just how bad things are in Macy's world. One of the first scenes that showed (not told) me the state of her apartment was when Macy was cleaning it for the upcoming visit from CPS.  She'd referred to the general state of the apartment but the detailed description of all the work she put into making it as presentable as possible clearly illuminated just how bad her living conditions were.  We are slowly taken along as her already precarious world unravels and she is forced to deal with unfathomable situations without reprieve.  Macy uses whatever skills and tools she has to try to save what she can in her life - Zach, George, herself (as an afterthought), and Alma in a horrible, Sophie's choice decision.  I am blown away by this book and its impact on me.  I read a lot and am usually just moving on to the next title without thinking a whole lot about what I just finished.  So if I am still pondering a book days later, that's a winner.  I am trying to find a way to justify including it in my middle school collection but I think it's just a little too mature to get away with it which is a shame because so many of my students would (very sadly) identify with Macy's life.  And an equal number would have a window into a life different from their own but with a character with whom they can sympathize and maybe begin to have more empathy for others overall.

I have to say that despite how bleak a picture Ramos has painted here, I did not leave the book feeling depressed.  I was sad for Macy and the things she had to do and endure, but mostly I was in awe of such an amazing story, told so well.   I think it might be one of the most important books I've read.

Side note:  Other reviewers have mentioned Macy's nonstandard English as a reason they did not finish or enjoy the book.  But for those who are scared off by that, I will say that I have read many other books with way more slang and spelling differences than this one.  It should not be a problem to figure out what Macy is saying since most of the language variances are simple things like using an "f" at the end of words that end with "th".  So get over yourself and your insistence on a character using the Queen's English. 

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