One evening, years ago, I was in the family room watching my sister play Tetris when I felt something tickle my arm inside my shirt. Eyes still on the TV screen, I absent-mindedly reached in my sleeve only to discover there was a live cricket in my shirt. I may have screamed. It was harmless, really, but to feel so invaded, especially in the place you feel most safe, is not easily ignored. You may understand, then, how I came to fear crickets for years after.
Kate Messner's Chirp is aptly titled because much of the action takes place in and around a cricket farm. Even without a fear of crickets, you might find this an odd setting, and you'd be right. But there is nothing odd about the easy narration, perfect pacing, and gentle assurance of this book.
It's the summer before 8th grade, and Mia and her family have moved back to Vermont, back to where Mia's grandmother lives and runs a cricket farm. Gram is a force to be reckoned with: the only woman in UVM's entomology department for a decade, an entrepreneur, and a physical beast, sending Mia photos of her planking as part of her physical therapy after a stroke. When Gram quips, "There's nothing stronger than a woman who's rebuilt herself," you understand her strength, and as the story unfolds, you begin to see the many strengths of all the girls and women in this book. Fellow author Anne Ursu blurbed this book, calling it "a compelling ode to the everyday bravery of girls." It is exactly that.
A cricket farm is a loud place, apparently. With thousands of crickets in a warehouse, you might assume the noise level would be a bit intense, but like Mia, you might be surprised to learn that only the males chirp. Upon learning this fact, Mia "couldn't help wondering about all those quiet females. Was it that they couldn't chirp at all, no matter what? Or were the boy crickets so loud that they never got the chance?"
If you were to make a playlist for this book, it would start with "Brave" by Sara Bareilles. The lyrics are a clarion call: "Say what you wanna say. Let the words fall out. Honestly. I wanna see you be brave." And we do. We want Mia to chirp, to not feel small, to not be made to feel less than by someone bigger and louder. When Mia finally does let the words fall out, she tells her mother and her Gram about the inappropriate way her former gymnastics coach behaved, something she has been keeping a secret, and their response is so good and so right. They remind Mia (and all of us) that bravery takes many forms. Gram says,
"Sometimes courage is quiet. You were brave to speak up today, Mia. But you were brave before that, too. Sometimes getting up in the morning and being you, no matter what's happened to you and no matter what anybody says, is the bravest, most defiant thing a woman can do."
There are likely those who have questioned Messner's decision to write a book that includes this part of the story. I do not. Young people, girls and boys, need these stories, need to be reassured of their bravery and of their unique worth. And perhaps, if they understand early on how wrong these types of choices are, the girls of today will not have to be the women of tomorrow who have felt the simultaneous relief and gut-punch of our collective Me Too.
There is so much more to this story, too! Mystery and Ninja Warrior Course training and Entrepreneur camp and meeting new people and feeling they've been your friend forever and ever and the fierce protective love of family. It's all here. Do read it.
The 2021 Newbery Medal selection committee spends the whole year considering titles. As always, I will be reading and reviewing along with the committee, keeping one eye on today's young readers and the other eye on each book's prospects. After each review, I'll offer my one-sentence take (OST) on medal-worthiness.
OST: Though I found the "mystery" fairly obvious, the other aspects of this story will keep it in the conversation, especially by those who have been personally moved by it.
Previous titles under consideration: