I’ve read more middle grade this year than I have in the past, which is a good thing, because I always kind of tend to forget about it as a genre. Now that my daughter is getting older, however, middle grade books are more on my radar, and a few really great ones have ended up on my TBR. It was a list of Jewish middle grade books that made me aware of The Length of a String by Elissa Brent Weissmann (Dial Books, 2018). Due to its location at a different library, I hadn’t gotten to it yet, and I hadn’t even meant to check it out when I did – we were just visiting that library for a quick escape to its air conditioning on a day when ours had died (all good now, thankfully!). I had books at home, but my daughter wanted to play in the empty children’s play area, so I grabbed this book off the shelf and was hooked within the first few pages. And by hooked, I mean HOOKED.
Imani is not only preparing for her bat mitzvah, the ceremony that will mark her entry into Jewish adulthood, she’s grappling with her identity as an adoptee. What does it mean to be adopted? What were her first parents like, and why did they choose for her to be raised by her parents? What’s her ancestral background? The death of her great-grandmother Anna, who traveled alone to America at age twelve, raises more questions than answers for Imani, until she discovers Anna’s diary among the books she inherited. Anna’s story of leaving her twin sister, parents, and other siblings behind in occupied Luxembourg to travel to safety in America is one of discovery, stress, and worry, all things Imani is grappling with, albeit in a much different context. But Imani is able to relate, and reading Anna’s story (and sharing this journey with her best friend) is able to help her put her own questions into context.
When the journal ends abruptly, Imani isn’t satisfied, and she begins to delve deeper into her family’s story, and to gain the courage to ask the difficult questions that will shed some light on her own identity.
This is an amazing book. My write-up doesn’t do it justice at ALL; I didn’t want this to end, but when it did, I immediately marked it as five stars. Ms. Weissman deals with some heavy issues here: the Holocaust, death, adoption, identity, but she does it all with grace and a deep understanding of tween emotions. Imani wants nothing more than to understand her own background, where her genetic ancestors came from and why she’s not living with the people she came from (questions that non-adopted kids are almost always readily able to answer); her search for knowledge about herself is contrasted with her great-grandmother Anna’s solo journey to America, leaving behind her entire family to live in safety with relatives. Anna’s guilt at living in safety, with abundant food, while her family remains behind in Nazi-occupied Luxembourg, weighs heavily on her, especially with the dearth of information coming out of Europe, and this is something that affects Imani deeply. Her desperation for knowledge of her background helps her understand exactly how frightened her great-grandmother must have been.
Imani’s feelings about her adoption are complicated. She loves her family and her Jewish community, but the answers she craves about her biological family depend on help from her parents, and she’s not sure how to begin that conversation in a way that won’t wound them. Things don’t always good smoothly, especially between her and her mother (who, at one point, does react in a somewhat hurtful way – there’s no manual for this, and we as parents all fail from time to time), but with great-grandma Anna’s story as a launching point, Imani is eventually able to find a place of wholeness and acceptance within herself…along with moving her family in a new direction after a surprising turn of events.
Goodness, what a masterfully written middle-grade novel! I honestly don’t think I could have possibly loved this more.