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BOOK REVIEWS, Contemporary Realistic Fiction, Humor, LOVELACE Nominee 2015-16, Middle Grade Readers, Read-Aloud Suggestions

WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU O.J. by Erica S. Perl…LOVELACE Nominee Division I 2015-16

By Erica Perl

This book is another one of my exciting accidental finds.  The idea of an empty orange juice jug as a dog (and I am a sucker for a good person/dog story–as long as the dog doesn’t die) was too enticing for me to pass up!  And I am glad I searched for this in the library!

O.J. is, indeed, an empty orange juice jug (like a gallon milk carton).  When 10-year-old Zelly (short for Zelda) wakes up one morning the empty jug is at her bedside with a note that reads





Ace is Zelly’s grandfather.  Shortly before we meet Zelly she and her family have lost her grandmother (Bubbles) to cancer, moved from Brooklyn, NY to Vermont and had Ace move in with their family.  Zelly has wanted a dog for as long as she can remember but her parents are adamant that during this time of change for their family a dog is out of the question.

Ace’s plan is for Zelly to use the orange juice jug as a “practice dog.”  The idea is that if she can show her parents she knows how to be responsible and take care of her “practice dog” she can convince them to let her get a real one.  Zelly thinks Ace’s idea is a little nuts but she decides to go along with it since her best friend is away at camp for the summer and she doesn’t feel as if she fits into the Vermont community into which they have moved anyway.

Christened “O.J.” at breakfast that morning, Zelly’s initial efforts on behalf of her practice dog are half-hearted at best.  The piece of this story that takes it beyond the humorous images of a girl taking an empty orange juice jug for a “drag” down the street, “feeding” it by pouring water and dog food into it, and cleaning up after it when she empties out the contents and collects it in a plastic bag the way she would with real doggy waste is Zelly’s genuine conflict between wanting something (a dog) and committing to a somewhat out-of-the-ordinary (and possibly embarrassing) plan to achieve her goal.

Zelly has to figure out how much of herself she is willing to sacrifice in order to have people like her–or at least NOT make fun of her.  When she meets another new resident in the neighborhood–Jeremy–she gains some new insight into her grandfather and her own feelings.  It is never easy to be yourself in the face of judgment and possible ridicule from our peers.  Each of us has to decide how much of ourselves we are willing to show to others on an everyday basis.  How will we feel if people make fun of us?  How will we feel if no one makes fun of us but we know we are not being true to who we are?

The reader gets to walk with Zelly in lock step as she experiences the entire gamut of feelings around these hard decisions.  We all identify with her struggle because each of us struggles with the same thing at different times in our lives.

This is a wonderfully plotted novel with well developed characters that never becomes preachy.  I am considering using this as a read-aloud with the middle-grade classes to whom I read because it has such a nice balance between lightheartedness and fundamental issues of self-esteem.  I can see a thousand different springboard conversations spinning off this story in a positive, thought-provoking way for young readers.

A brilliant and non-patronizing way to express our power to make the important decisions that shape our lives, as opposed to allowing others to make them for us, When Life Gives You O.J.is an empowering read!



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