Kate Gordon, Aster’s Good, Right Things, Yellow Brick Books, November 2020, 196 pp., RRP $14.99 (pbk), ISBN 9780648492573
Eleven-year-old Aster is living with anxiety. She’s intent on doing a ‘good, right thing’ every day, believing everything will go wrong if she doesn’t make someone’s life better. Her only friend is a rabbit on the school grounds … till she meets its owner, a home-schooled boy her age who has his own mental health challenges.
This #ownstory middle-grade novel, based on the author’s life-long struggles with anxiety, tackles serious issues with great insight including bullying, mental health, parental separation, and gender stereotypes. The story is easy to breeze through, thanks to its first person, confessional narrative, and its evocative language. Aster’s description of her ‘good, right thing’ for the day is a nice lead-in to each chapter. Despite its slim size, the book tackles a range of deep issues, pitched perfectly to a young audience.
Dad knows what this is like – to find the world too terrifying sometimes. Dad calls his feeling “the blues.” I call mine “noise.” It’s not sadness. Or numbness, like Dad says he feels sometimes. It begins as a kind of creeping dread and a kind of mushrooming and a kind of tsunami of too much.
Some reframing around mental health issues could be of benefit. In my reading, Aster resonated much more strongly as a neurodivergent character, and although the narrative perspective was strong, her voice at times seemed inconsistent. Her new friend, Xavier struck me as unduly motivated and engaged for a child with severe depression, even writing Aster a jokey, heartfelt, somewhat optimistic note when his condition was at its worse. Aster’s mother, the source of much of her anxiety, is described in a way that strongly suggests bipolar disorder, though this is not addressed. Aster’s father also has depression. The wide range of mental health issues means some can be addressed only obliquely, raising more questions than can possibly be answered.
This is a moving, character-driven story that creeps up on readers. Much of the real action happens only towards the end, which made the emotional payoff, although satisfying, seem slightly shoehorned. Ultimately, this is a book about friendship and connections, about kindness and empathy, and about family. And that is its real strength.
A great book to start important conversations with young readers.
Reviewed by Maura Pierlot