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Book Reviews, Contemporary Realistic Fiction, Middle Grade Readers, Teacher & Parent Recommendations

THE NAKED MOLE-RAT LETTERS by Mary Amato

The Naked Mole-Rat Letters is an easy, compelling read from Mary Amato. (Her book PLease Don’t Write in This Book is a 2011-12 Lovelace Nominee.)  The narrator is twelve-year-old Frankie.  She tells the story through a combination of diary entries and email correspondence.

As the story begins Frankie has accidentally discovered an email sent to her father from a woman in Washington D. C.–where her father has just been on a business trip.  The reference to a dinner and what Frankie realizes are romantic overtones cause her to launch a campaign to make sure this woman stays away from her father.  Frankie’s mother has died before the start of the book and she does NOT want her father dating another woman.  Ever.

Frankie emails Ayanna–the woman whose email to her father she inadvertently intercepted.  She discovers that Ayanna is the Keeper for the Naked Mole-Rat exhibit at the Zoo.  She tries various tactics to dissuade Ayanna from further communication with her father:  her father is allergic to small mammals, her younger brothers have debilitating diseases that include constant diarrhea and require around-the-clock care, her father is taking medication that confuses him so he doesn’t know what he is doing or saying, etc.

Throughout their correspondence Ayanna is genuine with Frankie, encouraging her to talk to her father about how she is feeling, as well as contributing her own insights about some of Frankie’s own dilemmas, which have crept into their emails.  Frankie feels alone in her confusion and mishmash of uncomfortable feelings.  Her best friend, Beth, doesn’t seem to understand what it feels like for Frankie to even think about her dad with another woman, so she stops talking to her.  Frankie, always a lead role in elementary school productions, is cast in a small role when she auditions for the middle school play.  She is devastated by what she feels is a slap in the face and turns down the role, making excuses that she cannot participate because her father is having a nervous breakdown.

Her crisis with the play, her father’s new romance, homework (she has been a straight-A student), losing her friends through her own withdrawal and two annoying little brothers all feel like more than Frankie can handle. Her life seems to have turned on its head with the loss of her mother, starting middle school and her father’s possible new romance.   Although for the sake of the story some events are mildly contrived or exaggerated, they all work together to create a cohesive, well-plotted middle school read.  Frankie’s emotions are raw and palpable through the pages as you read it.

I was pleased to find that the ending was NOT the typically trite:  boy gets girl, boy loses girl due to kids’ hijinks, kids apologize and boy gets girl back.  Without giving away the ending, I will say that it does successfully tie up all the plot points and still leave room for the positive and the challenging turns that life will bring for all the characters in the future.

I was charmed and completely drawn into this book.  I had a hard time putting it down once I started it.  I highly recommend it as my favorite of the works I have read by Mary Amato.

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