Lynn: Students and teachers across our country have seen active shooter drills become a regular event. All of us have reeled with the reality of school shootings in our nation and most of us cannot understand the senseless deaths of the innocents who have fallen to this epidemic. Why the issue of guns cannot be dealt with is a gaping wound. But here’s another important question to ponder. What happens AFTER the tragedy to the children who somehow survive it? Erin Bow addresses this tragically relevant question in her newest book, Simon (Sort of) Says (Disney/Hyperion, 2023).
Twelve-year-old Simon is the lone survivor of a horrific school shooting and after a year of therapy and home-schooling, is returning to school. But this school is in the town of Grin and Bear It, Nebraska where Simon and his family are making a fresh start. Simon wants to put the shooting behind him and he also wants to put the incessant media focus behind him with the looks, the whispers, and the sympathy. He just wants to fly under the radar and be a normal kid.
Grin and Bear It is the ideal place because it is a National Quiet Zone where internet, cell phones, TV, and all media are banned in order to not interfere with the Radio Telescope arrays and the astrophysicists listening for signals from space. It couldn’t be more perfect. He makes friends, acquires a service dog puppy to socialize and things are looking good. Simon is a bit concerned about his friend Agate’s intentions of providing an alien message to encourage the scientists whose funding may be in jeopardy and he suspects his teacher may know about his past from the sorrowful looks she gives him. Mostly life seems to be going as he hoped. But Simon should know from experience that life seldom does what you expect.
This is an extraordinary character-driven story with moments of hilarity and a cast of characters so richly developed that they feel like family. The humor is perfectly dialed in for tween readers and some of the action is rather manic—also perfect for the tastes of young readers. But the core of this story is a subject tragically timely and handled with masterful sensitivity and ringing with truth. What is it like to live with such terrifying trauma and what is it like to be the object of overwhelming pity? What does it feel like to be reminded every minute of the past by the reactions of strangers to your very presence? Through Bow’s skillful and sensitive prose, readers experience what Simon feels and the experience is shattering. I know I will never think about trauma and the reactions to trauma in the same way.
On a lighter note—I loved the portrayal of the adults in the story—particularly Simon’s parents who have also suffered trauma and are recovering in their own ways. Simon’s coffee-loving mortician mother and deacon/sackbut playing father are worthy of a book by themselves as are his friends, Agate and Kevin. The cover of this book picks up on the humor in the story but I think it misses the deeply empathetic focus of the book.
This is an early-in-the-year publication but I think it will reside firmly at the top of my best list this year. Brilliantly written and immensely entertaining as well as perception-changing, this incredible story deserves awards.