Review: Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen!
Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen! by Sarah KapitCategory: Middle Grade
Reviewer: Sylvie Shaffer
Eleven-year-old Vivy learned to pitch a knuckleball from pitcher VJ Cappello at an event for kids like her, who have autism. At the time, VJ was still in the Minor League, and Vivy was still honing her communication and social skills. Vivy and VJ have both come a long way since then- him playing in the Majors, and Vivy working hard on both her knuckleball and her own self-agency.
She writes to her hero VJ as a social-skills-class assignment, not expecting him to write back, but not only does he (eventually), Vivy gets scouted for a local team while practicing her pitching with her big brother, Nate. Vivy expects that the biggest hurdle will be getting her (slightly stereotypical Jewish) mother’s approval to play, but of course that’s only the first of many challenges being the only girl, and the only autistic kid, on the team.
The book’s epistolary format lends itself to direct explanations more than other formats might, so readers feel in on the conversations as opposed to recipients of info-dumps. Vivy, VJ, and most other secondary characters are multifaceted - Vivy’s mom and the team bully being the exceptions. Calculated reveals and small details highlighting various characters’ experiences and motivations - particularly with regards to Vivy’s autism - are respectful and offer insights without othering. The author self-identifies as Autistic and Jewish, and that shines through.
The Jewish content is strong and absolutely warrants consideration from The Real STBA Committee - the life Vivy shows us through her correspondence is unquestionably Jewish. Early in the novel, Vivy shares that “her father always says he has two religions-- Reform Judaism and Baseball” and the rest of the book does a commendable job of showing the reader the many ways this is true. There’s far more here than just the obligatory mentions of Sandy Koufax (though there’s a couple of those, too!) Vivy dresses up as knuckleballer Phill Neikro for Purim, has to miss a game to attend Seder at her Grandmother’s, and practices for her B’nai Mitzvah. She also cites her female Rabbi’s same-sex partner as she attempts to gauge her parents’ stance on LGBTQ issues. Vivy’s Jewish identity is depicted as natural and multifaceted, much in the same way her autism is portrayed: it’s one part of who she is, and it shapes how she experiences the world.
Thematically, the book tackles the kind of self-advocacy Hillel famously implores in Pirke Avot*, "If I am not for myself, who is for me?" and also gets at the rest of that quotation, about not being only for oneself, either. That second part comes perhaps a bit harder for Vivy, but her exchanges with VJ - which I read as a Chevrutah** of sorts - nudge her closer to self-reflection.
I sincerely hope “Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen” garners some recognition from the STBA committee, and wouldn’t be surprised to see it nab a Schneider***, too.
* Pirke Avot is a collection of ethical teachings. The title translates to “Wisdom of Fathers
** Literally, “Friendship” but commonly used to describe a traditional rabinic mode of studying Talmud, where two scholars work through a text together, debating and explaining as a means to deepen both their understandings and their partner’s.
*** The Schneider Family Book Award recognizes authors and illustrators for the excellence of portrayal of the disability experience in literature for youth.
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