July’s Big Picture
by Paula Chase
There’s a reason why we get so many books about the drifting of middle-school friendships: it’s a huge challenge in young people’s lives, it’s often the first one they’ve faced that’s completely at their level, and it’s where they first attempt to balance their own needs with those of others, the comfort of habit and the desire for change, that must be negotiated in relationships all their lives. And so it is with Tai and Mila, the protagonists of So Done.
Tai and Mila live across the street from each other in their low-income, largely African-American neighborhood, the Cove, and they’ve been best friends for a long time. Now, however, Tai is hurt when Mila returns from her summer away not wanting to be called her old nickname of Bean and, in fact, doesn’t seem to want to spend time with Tai at all. Meanwhile, Mila chafes under Tai’s bossiness, but more seriously, she’s afraid to go back to Tai’s house for fear that Tai’s drug-using father, who groped her, is there. As the two eighth-graders and the rest of their friend group work toward dance auditions for a Talented and Gifted program, the girls try to get back into a friendship groove but struggle to get past their quarrels.
The third-person narration alternates focalization between Tai and Mila, and both are plausible and authentic characters. Hotheaded Tai never met a situation she couldn’t escalate, but she’s also deeply afraid of being left behind by her upward-bound friend, while Mila is tired of being the girl who lets everybody else walk all over her. Readers may find Mila initially the more easy to like, since her unease about Tai’s house is reasonable, and bossy, needling Tai isn’t giving an inch to her long-suffering friend. The look at Tai’s life gives her sympathetic dimension, however: she genuinely can’t see any other configuration for her and Mila’s friendship (“Both of them couldn’t be the lead, snapping on people and setting them straight”), and much as she loves the grandmother who’s raising her, Nona’s indulgence of Tai’s druggy dad contrasts unfavorably with Mila’s father’s refusal to let Mila’s strung-out mother back in the house. Already feeling like Mila’s new growth generates “light beaming on every flaw Tai had,” Tai has to contend with her less competitive skills in ballet (she’s more of a hip-hop dancer), which may keep her out of the TAG program, and the cool new girl with whom, she fears, Mila will replace her.
While the writing has some awkward moments, the dialogue is absolutely believable in its colloquial flow, both between the girls and within their families, and the text exchanges are perfectly on point in both their text and subtext. There’s also credibility in the portrayal of the Cove and the different way life there affects the [End Page 459] various characters, from Mila’s dad’s determination to defend the neighborhood, to the probability that some of the girls’ classmates have already joined the ranks of the “dope boys,” to the kids’ warranted cynicism about the easy-come, easy-go afterschool enrichment programs.
Overall, the details of a friendship that sometimes grates and sometimes rewards are painfully real. Readers negotiating their own friend breakups and family strains will find this an accessible counterpart to Kim’s Running through Sprinklers (BCCB 4/18). (See p. 466 for publication information.)