Review: Dear Student

Dear Student

by Elly Swartz

Delacorte Press (imprint of Penguin Random House), 2022

Category: Middle Grade
Reviewer: Sandy Wasserman

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Dear Student is the perfect book for any middle school child, boy or girl. It takes place in Grade 6, where even the most perfect-appearing, self assured kid is not! NOT at all! Autumn is anxious and thinks she's weird and doesn't have friends, never says the right thing, always second guesses what she might say or ought to have said. Author, Elly Swartz lets us in on all of Autumn's thoughts, her conflicts, her attempt at emergence into the world of her new school, her new home, and her family angst. Everyone else seems so in-the-know, even her kindergarten sister. Surprising herself, she makes a friend, Logan, relatively quickly. And the boy-without-a-name she met on her first morning heading to school, Cooper, becomes her friend, too. The reader comes to know what a great writer Autumn is, as we are witness to the creative story she reads aloud to her class, shy though she is. Her teacher recognizes Autumn's skill, and the reader is so excited to learn that Autumn has been chosen to be the secret voice of the 'Dear Student' online news advice column. 
Each short chapter takes us through the twists and turns of being a sixth grader, and learning from each experience, tough though each may be. Autumn's angst and self doubt seep into all she does, to the bitter end. But does she learn? And change? And what about her friends, who each have their own issues? Each character is so clearly defined. Oh, author Elly Swartz has them all mastered. Autumn and her friends come to the conclusion, each on their own, that being perfectly honest is the key to being a good friend, that standing up for what one believes in can be hard, but it's always the best way, whether it's about school issues or social issues. Friendship, forgiveness, saving the world, making the world more equitable, for people and animals- it's all here. This book is for a middle schooler or the one still lurking in each of us. ... November is Jewish Book Month, which is usually a month before Hanukkah. Hint! Hint! What a find for a parent, a grandparent, a teacher, a school- as a gift. And a chat about it would be great, too.

Judaism is not the focus of Dear Student, which is clearly about a class of sixth graders in a public school. Yet there are several Jewish moments as we go-behind-the-scenes in Autumn's mind; these are isolated moments connected to a Jewish holiday, or the hamsa she wears that was her grandma's, or some advice she was given, based on Judaism, that guide her choices. These touches of Judaism are all sprinkled into the story like the perfect amount of honey in your favorite challah recipe. For these reasons, Dear Student is the perfect book for our times, when we have so many already about Jewish holidays and Holocaust. This one offers the reader 'just another kid' who happens to be Jewish, and the validation will make Jewish kids glow inside, while other readers will absorb a bit of Yiddishkeit, just as Jewish kids have been absorbing the Christian world by osmosis, forever. For the reasons of its brilliant subtlety, this book very much meets the Sydney Taylor Book Award criteria.

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Reviewer Sandy Wasserman is a retired teacher of Gifted and Talented students, and taught for 35 years in both public schools and at a Solomon Schechter Day School. She's a wife, mother of two adult daughters, and grandmother to two fantastic 'first readers' of her manuscripts. Her published book, The Sun's Special Blessing [2009], was her first serendipitous and fun experience in the publishing world. She loves to read and swim, though not at the same time.