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Just Like Jackie

Review

Just Like Jackie

Robinson Hart has a tough exterior. Having grown up in a small Vermont town with her grandfather as her only family member, the fifth-grader has developed a reputation for sticking up to bullies with her fists. Her favorite activities are playing baseball at recess and fixing cars at her grandfather’s garage.

But recently, her grandfather has started acting differently. He’s forgetting how to do simple tasks and the locations of items in their home. Robinson’s trying her hardest to keep it secret, worried that she’ll be taken away from the most important person in her life. This is the conflict at the root of JUST LIKE JACKIE by first-time author Lindsey Stoddard.

"JUST LIKE JACKIE is a wonderful coming-of-age story with a nontraditional, yet completely irresistible, heroine."

The novel begins with Robinson -- named after baseball great Jackie Robinson -- punching fellow fifth-grader Alex after he calls her “a motherless robin bird.” Robinson never knew her mother and her grandfather has spent the last ten years of his life keeping mum on the topic. Robinson’s long-time curiosity peaks when her teacher introduces a family tree project and she knows she needs to find out the answers before her grandfather’s memory is gone for good. She also keeps hoping that if she keeps trying to be like her namesake Jackie Robinson, her grandfather will get back to normal.

In the meantime, Robinson’s school counselor, Ms. Gloria, is making her attend group sessions with three other students, including Alex the bully. Naturally, Robinson does not react well to this and vows to contribute as little as possible. When the glittery, purple talking wand gets to her during that first session her response is “pass.”

Stoddard does a good job of setting the pace between Robinson’s growth as a character in her counseling group and her grandfather’s increasingly apparent illness. As Robinson begins to open up more, she starts to see her peers in more broad terms than “bully” and categorizations such as “stupid.”

Robinson’s grandfather is a classic, stoic Vermonter and Stoddard does a good job of showing that through his actions. He is self-sufficient and doesn’t ask others for help, even though it becomes apparent that he needs it. Robinson inherits this life attitude and it’s both one of her weaknesses and her strengths. Robinson is a charming character and her devotion to the people she loves, including her often-bullied best friend Derek, is satisfying to read about.

Stoddard, a Vermont native herself, wonderfully brings to life those things that make small towns so special: the general store in the center of town, tapping maple trees and boiling sap and the everyone-seems-to-know-everyone community.

The biggest strength in Stoddard’s writing is her way of introducing memory orders to an adolescent audience. The scenes where Grandpa Hart says the wrong word, only to have Robinson quickly correct him in hopes that no one else will notice, speak to their strong relationship but also the increasing difficulties the pair face together. The book’s ending is particularly stunning in showing the impact of a memory disorder on family members and loved ones.

Robinson’s family tree grows along with her as she realizes that other people in her life other than her grandfather play an important role as well. While it is a bit of a cliché to use a family tree project to show the importance of these relationships, as well as providing the impetus for Robinson to try to get some real answers from her grandfather about her mother, it is fitting in this context. The relationships the characters have with each other is the most satisfying part of this novel.

The diversity among the characters Stoddard creates is also worth noting: Robinson’s grandfather is African-American and her grandfather’s employee Harold is gay, with him and his husband expecting a child. The traits of these characters aren’t explained ad nauseam, they’re simply incorporated into the overall novel, which makes them so special. While race is touched upon because Robinson does not greatly resemble her grandfather in appearance, it is not the focus of the plot.

JUST LIKE JACKIE is a wonderful coming-of-age story with a nontraditional, yet completely irresistible, heroine. The relationships Robinson has and develops help enforce Stoddard’s lauded approach to introducing children to memory disorders. Read this novel with a tissue box at hand, though the tears will be shed not of grief but for the heart that beats through every page.

Reviewed by Liz Sauchelli on January 30, 2018

Just Like Jackie
by Lindsey Stoddard