Review: Absolutely, Positively Natty

Absolutely, Positively Natty

by Lisa Greenwald

Katherine Tegen Books (imprint of HarperCollins Publishers), 2023

Category: Middle Grade
Reviewer: Beth L. Gallego

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"Good vibes only!" Natty Blanken lives by the words on the patch on her backpack. What's the point of focusing on the negative? So, last year she was part of the popular group at her Long Island middle school, and her parents were together, and now she lives with her dad at his parents’ house in a small Pennsylvania town where she doesn’t know any of the other junior high students? That’s all fine. It’s an opportunity to make new friends and try new things. Her parents won’t really get divorced; her mom will join them in Miller Creek eventually. Everything will be just fine. Better than fine. Natty just has to put that good energy out into the universe, and ignore that weird twisted-up feeling she keeps getting in her gut, right?

When it seems like everyone around her can only talk about how bad things are, Natty doubles down on relentless cheerfulness. She starts a pep squad at the junior high, planning the first pep rally in anyone’s memory. But there are real problems in her life, her friends’ lives, and the town as a whole. To experience real happiness, she’s going to have to face up to the fact that sometimes, things are just bad. “Good vibes only” is a nice sentiment, but when a person refuses to recognize there is a problem, finding a solution is impossible.

Greenwald explores the impact of toxic positivity, looking for the bright side of any situation while ignoring real challenges, in an age-appropriate scenario for middle grade readers. The people of Miller Creek are clearly in economic difficulty, and it is suggested that mental health issues precipitated the Blankens’ move from Long Island. The more Natty tries to convince herself and everyone else that everything will be just fine if they only believe it, the clearer it becomes that this is not a workable strategy.

The Jewish content of this novel is largely confined to Natty’s background. In Miller Creek, she is the only Jewish student in the seventh grade, a fact mentioned briefly and without drama. Natty anticipates her Bat Mitzvah in the next couple of years, but it isn’t a big concern for her, nor is the fact that the nearest synagogue is half an hour away. Like many contemporary Jewish American tweens, Natty identifies as Jewish while living an almost entirely secular life.

This is a charming contemporary realistic novel for middle grade readers. Friendship and what it means to be a good friend are central to the story, timeless themes with wide appeal. This should be seriously considered for the Sydney Taylor Book Award.

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Reviewer Beth L. Gallego grew up outside Chicago, earned her Master’s degree in Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, and promptly moved to sunny Southern California, where she has been a Librarian since 2002.