Define “Normal” (2000) by Julie Anne Peters (find it on Bookshop) deals with a common theme in teen literature: What happens when people from different worlds come together?
Antonia Dillon and Jasmine “Jazz” Luther are polar opposites. As the cover illustrates quite well. Antonia wears pleated skirts, is on the honor roll, and used to be in math club (she also used to do gymnastics). And she’s still only in eighth grade. With all of that under control, Antonia is eager to volunteer at her school’s peer counseling program in order to add “peer counselor” to her already impressive resume.
Jazz has purple hair, piercings, and tattoos (she might even do drugs and hang out with gangs). Jazz is also the peer Antonia is supposed to counsel. And yet, how could anyone think these two girls are peers?
Even though Antonia is sure her counseling efforts are doomed to fail, she keeps meeting with Jazz who, miraculously, also shows up. As the girls get to know each other it becomes clear that they might have more in common than appearances would suggest. Even more, perhaps, than either girl would like to admit.
As Antonia helps Jazz get her own family life together, Antonia’s own world seems to be falling apart no matter how much she tries to maintain the status quo. As everything starts to unravel, Jazz might be the only one who can help Antonia pull it all together.
This is a book that challenges readers’ perceptions with two disparate, and simultaneously alike, characters. As the title suggests, an important message here is that nothing is as it seems. On another level, Peters reminds readers that appearances are often meaningless without context–something that she provides for both Antonia and Jazz as the novel progresses. Like Antonia, readers begin this novel with a certain idea of how things will turn out. Specifically, Jazz is the troubled teen and Antonia is trying to help her. As Peters delves deeper into both girls’ personal lives, these preconceptions are turned upside down.
Define “Normal” is marketed for children aged 9 to 12 (according to Amazon.com), a range that feels pretty accurate. The writing here is simple, not in a bad way but in a way that will not confuse readers on the younger end of the spectrum. For this reason certain elements of the plot felt predictable to this reader. However that is likely from reading this book for the first time at eighteen rather than from poor writing.
Antonia and Jazz are both strong, resilient characters and give girls a lot to think about. On the other hand, though it might be a hard sell, this book could have an important message for boys as well about how important it is to realize that “normal” is such a relative, and plastic concept. Define “Normal” is in the unique position where it works just as well as assigned reading in school as a book that readers would willingly (and hopefully will!) pick up themselves.
Possible Pairings: The Sweetheart of Prosper County by Jill S. Alexander, Alice, I Think by Susan Juby, Goth Girl Rising by Barry Lyga, Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta, Vibes by Amy Kathleen Ryan