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Book Reviews, Contemporary Realistic Fiction, Early/Young Readers, Free Verse, Middle Grade Readers, Read-Aloud Suggestions, Teacher & Parent Recommendations

PEARL VERSES THE WORLD by Sally Murphy

Pearl Verses the World is the story of young Pearl.  Pearl lives with her mother and her grandmother.  That’s the way it has always been for her.  Pearl tells us that “Wherever I am/no one sees me” and that, with all the different groups of kids in her class at school, she is “in a group of one.”  Pearl loves to express herself through poetry–and has a gift for it.  Her teacher, Miss Bruff, has asked the class to write a poem, with the stipulation that it must rhyme.  Pearl’s poems do NOT rhyme and she resents being told she must write one that does.  Her indignant attempts range from silly to sarcastic.  One of her classmates notices and enjoys the humor in her many drafts.

We also learn that Pearl’s Granny “is fading.”  Pearl relives the moments she and her Granny have enjoyed and the advice Granny has always given her when she sits beside her now.  Granny can no longer communicate very well and Pearl is struggling to organize this new development with the rest of her life.

When Pearl’s grandmother dies Pearl gives voice to all the anger and sadness of losing a loved one–especially a grandparent.  Her palpable anger at everyone else who does seem to realize the magnitude of the loss will resonate with each reader.  Pearl’s poetry was originally inspired and encouraged by her grandmother.  It is through her poery that Pearl finds a way to celebrate Granny’s life, mourn her loss and continue her own life in the loving spirit of her granny.

One of the special strengths of the story is that Granny’s death is never magically undone; but Pearl does find a way to keep living as a stronger individual without giving up any of her right to feel sad and angry.  Allowing herself to have those feelings, and seeing her move through them to a resolution that engenders hope gives every reader the opportunity to do the same.

Toward the end of the book Pearl talks about coming home after school and talking with her Mom:

“We sit on the bench that Granny painted/and feel happy-sad/that life goes on.”

This resolution to Pearl’s story is reminiscent of the extraordinary ending to Katherine Patterson’s iconic The Great Gilly Hopkins.  The language is succinct and often profound.  It carries the same strength and the same reassurance for young and old readers alike that although life doesn’t always unfold the way we expect–or even the way we think we want it–it can still be wonderful.

Having lost my beloved grandfather a few years ago I know that I identified with Pearl in ways I hadn’t previously realized.  For a child who has experienced the death of a loved one, or for a child who is oblivious to such an experience this story is an extraordinarily compassionate (sometimes even funny) read.  It’s a great bridge for parents or teachers to start a discussion with children about emotions, loss, or just feeling alone “in a group of one.”  The free verse format makes it a quick, easy read for a read-aloud or independent reading selection.

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