TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:
I know, it's getting old, but once again I have to give props to the Penguin Young Readers Group for their package of teen ARCs (advanced readers copies). Lucy Frank's "The Homeschool Liberation League" is a book I probably never would have picked up on my own, but I was intrigued by a homeschool-themed middle grade novel and figured, what the heck, it's free. I'm so glad I gave it a try, because this book is so much different — and so much better! — than what the generic "chick lit" cover might indicate.
Kaity has just completed a summer at wilderness camp, and it's changed her whole outlook on returning to Martin Van Buren Middle School for eighth grade. She loved learning about nature, wildlife, and foraging for food. She also loved the person she became at camp (she's even renamed herself "Katya"). Katya is a smart, independent, interesting girl, in contrast to the catty, troublemaking prankster Kaity often was during the school year. Katya feels like middle school, besides stifling her inquisitive mind, also forces her to play a certain role, and, quite frankly, she can't bear to do that to herself again.
Katya bails on the first day of school and prepares two massive research binders on homeschooling for her parents. Mom and Dad are working class folks, and, while they understand much of what Katya's complaining about, they're, for lack of a better term, "school people." Besides, they don't even believe they're capable of teaching their daughter. Katya eventually gets a trial homeschooling run, which mainly involves downloaded worksheets, a part-time job in her mom's salon, and a little bit of what she loves — engaging with and studying nature. As you might expect, there are many missteps along the way.
Much of the novel involves Katya, with an assist from her parents, trying to find her place in the world. Her folks aren't stupid, but they're not intellectual or academic people, and they worry — legitimately so — about Katya's education at home. Katya, meanwhile, is a bit frantic in trying to convince everyone that she can do all this schooling alone. "Unschooling" is, in fact, her dream. Unfortunately, to hide what's really going on, Katya tells some whopper lies to Francesca, the most popular girl at school, including one about the non-existent Homeschool Liberation League. As it turns out, though, even the seemingly perfect Francesca knows all about having to play a role to survive at school, and the Homeschool Liberation League, with an assist from cute violin master Milo, soon becomes a reality.
So there are a few things I loved about this book, which I'll just list for you:
(1) It's so rare to find a girl-oriented, light novel that takes place in a rural setting and focuses on the utter coolness of learning and education. The naturalist theme is wonderful and just so different, and the message here is a timely one.
(2) The romance with the homeschooled Milo, himself a smart, quirky, conflicted guy, is charming and innocent enough for the age group but realistic enough to capture our interest; and
(3) There's an important idea here about the ways in which school — teachers, peers, routines, and politics — forces some people to behave in artificial ways that absolutely kill their spirits. Even better, this book reassures those kids who feel as frustrated by school as Katya.
"The Homeschool Liberation League" is an appealing, good-natured novel that will be adored by middle school girls. It's also pretty clean — I think I remember one fleeting bit of profanity — so it's perfect for fifth graders and up. Katya's self-introspection, grudging slide into bad behavior, and recognition of her flaws reminded me of Ant in Gennifer Choldenko's delightful "Notes From a Liar and Her Dog," so fans of that book might want to check this one out, too.
This smart, likable novel comes out in early July. I hope you'll look for it then!