Girl of the Year 2017: Time for Change

Published 2017, author Varian Johnson,  book design by Angela Jun, cover photo by Kenneth P. Vail.


Gabby has got a lot going on. Sharing sixth grade ambassador duties with Aaliyah while navigating a new friendship with her, maintaining her friendship with Teagan despite being in a different school, preparing to start dancing en pointe (gradually and under the watchful eye of her ballet instructor, not dancing leads en pointe, Jesse), and rehearsing for a poetry slam. At first she seems to balancing things okay, but soon she’s stretched too thin. She doesn’t notice at first, and wonders why Teagan seems distant. It takes her a bit to connect the dots there (Teagan is feeling left out of Gabby’s life, especially with Gabby and Aaliyah’s new friendship, plus Teagan later reveals she hasn’t made any friends at her new school).

What Gabby does realize pretty quickly is that she’s not as excited about ballet as she used to be. She wonders if she should continue it when the passion seems to be gone. Although Gabby knows she should talk to her mother about it, she can’t bring herself too, because she knows how much her mom loves that Gabby does ballet. She even told Gabby’s ballet instructor that she’d been looking forward to the day when Gabby would get her first pointe shoes the day she’s found out she was pregnant with a girl. Gabby doesn’t want to disappoint her mom.

But she’s disappointing other people instead. She has trouble with her poetry, and neglects the Halloween costumes she and Teagan had planned (they always make elaborate costumes). She doesn’t focus enough on ballet, either, and is only able to pull off ambassador duties with Aaliyah’s help—and manages to accidentally insult her new friend in the process. She barely has time to study for school. Finally, Gabby talks to her mom. Much to Gabby’s relief, her mom understands, having once dreamed of being a Rockette, and even getting invited to join afternoon auditioning,  it ultimately turning it down to pursue a different dream (managing her theater). Gabby talks with her ballet instructor, who understands.

The harder part is making up with Teagan andAaliyah, but Gabby bites the bullet and works things out. With her mind free from guilt and her focus not spread so thin, Gabby is able to get her act together for the poetry slam. She performs a duet with Teagan and a solo act. Her team dos well enough to win! The book closes with Gabby looking forward to the next round of competition, and to navigating her way through whatever other passion she and dreams she may discover.


For Elizabeth, Adrienne, Savannah, and Sydney. Special thanks also given to Martha Chapman, Leana Barbosa, and Sofia Snow.

I’m old. Red describes The Fresh Prince as an old TV show. I rememer when it as airing. In West Philadelphia born and raised, on a playground was where I spent most of my days...

An early draft of Gabby’s solo poem describes a caterpillar metaphorically as a worm, but her teammates say it’s distracting since caterpillars aren’t worms, and she changes it to work better. I also found distracting that she described a butterfly coming out of a cocoon, but that’s moths. A butterfly would come out of a chrysalis.

Teagan tells Gabby that octopi and octopuses are both acceptable plurals of octopus, as is octopodes. The second two are better, because octopi indicates that octopus is Latin when it’s actually Greek-different plural rules apply (the plural of chrysalis, by the way, is chrysalides).

Red confirms in his solo poem that his mother is a single mom, but no big deal is made of it, which is probably nice for child en of single parents to read. ( He never mentions his father.) his poem is a tribute to his mom. he also says she’s  captain in the Army, so she must have joined recently, as that’s the rank a doctor new to the Army tend to have (a bachelors degree usually enters as a second lieutenant/O-1, advanced degrees as captain/O-3). He scores 9.8out of 10 for his poem,which is the highest score that the poetry slam has ever given.


Girl of the Year 2017: Gabriela Speaks Out

Published: 2017. Author: Teresa E. Harris


Gabriela's mostly excited for the start of middle school, but nervous too. Teagan is going to a magnate school focusing on STEM (for her coding talents), so the best friends will be separated. Still, the first day goes pretty well. Gabriela's glad that Isaiah is there with her; they've become good friends. But in the last class of the day, Gabriela finds herself assigned to sit next to Aaliyah, a perfectionist who saddled Gabriela with the nickname "Repeat" for her stutter. And as the students are getting ready to head home, they're pelted with water balloons. Isaiah's book of poetry by African-American activists is soaked--and Gabriela recognizes Red and one of his friends in the group throwing the balloons.

Apparently, there's a hazing called Sixth Grade Initiation. Red and his friends insist it's all in good fun, but Gabriela points out how unwelcome and unwanted it makes the younger students feel. Red confides that there's more to come, but seeing how it's clearly not enjoyed "in good fun" says he'll try to back off. The next day, the sixth grader students' lockers are decorate with cutting nicknames, like G-g-g-gabby for Gabriela and Fakespeare for Isaiah. Gabriela notices that Aaliyah claims to have not had one, but she has a crumpled piece of paper reading "Lonely Loser" as the older students seem to have noticed that her know-it-all perfectionist attitude is off-putting to her peers. Gabriela does see that Red added "Twinkle Toes" to the corner of her paper (a nice reference to her love of dance), but also sees the sixth-graders calling each other the names to spite each other.

When a teacher mentions that student body elections are coming up, Gabriela is inspired to run for representative on the platform of eliminating Sixth Grade Initiation. She has a lot of support from her grade, and Red and his friends like her stance as well. But of course Aaliyah is also running, and she's so good at campaigning that Gabriela feels like she doesn't stand a chance. For a bit, she thinks about changing her platform (Red suggests students be allowed more technology and internet access; he'd like to listen to music while doing in-class work and talk with his deployed mother at recess), but comes to the conclusion that she'd rather run on what's important to her. But is there any way she can win?

A talk with an overwhelmed Teagan (the new school is much harder than she anticipated, and is making her question her abilities) gives Gabriela an epiphany: Teagan is a coder and always will be; she doesn't have to prove it anyone else. Just like Gabriela can be a leader whether Aaliyah believes she can or not (Aaliyah's been saying some nasty things to her like, "How can you stand up for our class if you can't even speak up for your friends?"). Gabriela resolves to speak out against the Sixth Grade Initiation during her campaign speech: even if she doesn't win, maybe she can convince people the harmful tradition needs to go. An email from Isaiah about working together to build a better future rather than against people to win solidifies her view. In an effort to not alienate people, Gabriela tries to help Aaliyah with something, and when that backfires, writes her a poem.

To Gabriela's surprise, her overture works--quickly. Aaliyah writes her a letter apologizing for her treatment of her, explaining that she had decided to stop trying to make friends since it never worked at her old school. She mistook Gabriela's stuttering for looking for a reason to get away from Aaliyah, and held a grudge ever since. The girls quickly start to build a friendship. The timing couldn't be better: when the votes are tallied, Gabriela and Aaliyah are tied. Instead of a runoff election, the girls decided to serve together.


Dedicated to Keith.

Teagan lives with her grandfather.

The book makes it seem like there's only one speech therapist for the whole school district. My oldest has speech therapy, and thanks to a couple recent moves, has been in four different school districts in two states. Each had multiple speech therapists.

There are several mentions of Isaiah's parents pushing him to branch out with his interests because he focuses too much on single subjects. The way it's written, I wonder if they're hinting at Isaiah being on the autism spectrum.

The teachers clearly don't like the Sixth Grade Initiation, but don't really do anything to stop it. For example, if they know mean nicknames will be put on the six graders' lockers, why not have a teacher or two stand in that hallway to stop it from happening? (I really hate hazing like this, even having done things like sports and ROTC that stereotypically have hazing. "Let's make the new people miserable so they feel like part of the group!" I find it works better to treat them like you're happy they've joined.)

Gabriela was running for sixth grade ambassador. Why were the other grades voting for the sixth grade seat? I would understand if she were running for student body president or treasurer or something, but when we did elections in my school, the representatives for any given grade were only elected by their own grade.


Girl of the Year 2017: Gabriela

Published: 2017. Author: Teresa E. Harris.


Gabriela McBride has recently joined a spoken word poetry group, started by her slightly-older cousin Red. He's come to live with the McBrides in Philadelphia while his mother, a military doctor, is deployed. Gabriela was unsure at first about the group, given her stutter, but the prose actually helps her speak a little easier. She's still more expressive with dance, her first love. Conveniently, Gabriela's mom has been running Liberty, a performing arts center, for Gabriela's whole life. But now there's trouble: the building is in dire need of repair, and while it's technically owned by the city, the city will only pay for labor. The McBrides needs to come up with the materials, which is a tall order. Especially with the annual performance review on the horizon. And to make matters worse, Gabriela and Red think they may have caused the power overload that prompted the electrical panel inspection when by turning on some extra lights for a rehearsal

Gabriela suggests finding another place to rehearse while the repair situation is sorted out. She, Red, and her best friend Teagan go to talk to the school principal to see if they can use the gym. The gym is booked solid, but the principal suggests asking the students if they know of anywhere. A Shakespeare enthusiast named Isaiah offers to ask if they can use a room at a nearby Baptist church, where is dad is the pastor. While Gabriela is happy they have a stop-gap solution, she's upset that her stutter got in the way of talking to both the principal and the students. Both times Teagan stepped in and gave brief speeches. Gabriela knows Teagan was just trying to help and be supportive, but she's just as sure she could have gotten the words out if she'd had another few minutes to talk.

The church turns out to be a good place for rehearsals (especially at the price: free!) but it's not the same. Gabriela is still hoping to find a way to get Liberty fixed soon. There are fundraisers, community outreaches, and petition signings. At the signing  rally, Gabriela finally tells Teagan to not talk for her, but since she's been simmering with resentment for so long, she blows up at her (they make up soon after). Still, they collect over two hundred signatures! Well, before Gabriela accidentally spills paint on several pages...first she causes the power overload, now she ruins the petition.

But even with the paint stains, Gabriela and her Liberty friends are able to demonstrate the huge positive impact Liberty has on the community. The city agrees to set aside some money in its budget for the repairs (which now go beyond just electrical, as an inspection reveals) if Liberty can raise $20,000. In two weeks.

Everyone gets busy. They solicit donations, sell handmade things...but $20,000 is a lot. Gabriela says that if only more people could see how great Liberty is, they'd want to save it too. That's it: a public performance! Gabriela and her friends enlist the help of one of the adult apprentices at Liberty, but otherwise keep it secret from grown-ups, as they're sure the grown-ups will just take over or not let them do it. They say they want to go to a park on the day of a community picnic while Gabriela's mom and dad get a well-deserved date night. Just before the big day (two days before the budget meeting deadline), Red tells one more adult: someone with the local CBS news affiliate. The TV news reporter shows up in time to record the performance, which the kids put on without any advertisement, and Gabriela is able to push through her stuttering to give a short on-air speech about the importance of Liberty. She stumbles over some words, but she says what she wants to, on her own. And the reporter finishes the spot by directing viewers to the online donation website Gabriela's parents set up.

After their date, Gabriela and Red say vaguely that they weren't just at a picnic and hint not very subtly that Gabriela's parents should check the donations. Gabriela's parents are stunned, and wonder why they were kept in the dark. Gabriela and Red explain that it was their idea to have all the lights on for the rehearsal, so they think they caused the power failure. Since it was their fault, they wanted to fix it themselves. Gabriela's parents explain the extra power draw from the lights was more like the straw that broke the camel's back, and they wish they'd been told about the performance only so they could have helped. But when they all watch the news report, her parents are very impressed with the choreography. And even better, the donations reach--and then surpass by a few thousand dollars--their goal. Then annual end of summer performance review is back on, and it's a huge success.


Dedicated to Linda. Special thanks are also given to Lean Barbosa, MS CCC-SLP for help with the speech therapy parts; to Fatima Grace Groves, Senior Vice President for Program, National Women's Law Center; Sofia Snow, program director at Urban World NYC; and Urban Word NYC First Draft Open Mic for inspiring the "First draft!" tradition for Gabriela's poetry group.

Here's the good news/bad news about Gabriela McBride. Good news: American Girl finally listened to its customers and provided a girl of the year of color, providing more diversity in the line (even if she is another dancer) and dolls that are more easily relate-able to more girls (and the adults to collect them as well), not just with her ethnicity, but with her speech impediment.

Bad news: Gabriela is the first girl in a few years to not get a movie made, which is at best an uncomfortable coincidence. She's also not the only big release; the new Contemporary Characters line has two dolls out, Tenney and Z. Tenney has, at the time of this post, four books to Gabriela's three (Z has two), and in addition to the Tenney doll being released, a boy doll from her line is also out (Logan). So, Gabriela, the first black Girl of the Year and the first non-white Girl of the Year since Marisol, doesn't get a movie and has to share the spotlight. I'll be reviewing the Tenney and Z books as well, because I like complete things, but I'm giving Gabriela the first post (then Tenney then Z, because why not use alphabetical order).

The first scene of this book is set on June 23, 2017, a Sunday.

Since Shawshank Redemption is my favorite movie, you can imagine how I initially pictured an African-American character named Red. But someone in middle school probably doesn't look like Morgan Freeman...

Gabriela and Teagan make bracelets out of embroidery floss to sell for a fundraiser. Red suggests some be in the team colors of Philadelphia's professional sports teams, which is smart (Baseball: Phillies; NFL: Eagles).

I'm surprised that Isaiah's dad, a Baptist pastor, is called Mr. Jordan rather than Pastor Jordan. I'm used to Protestant ministers having a title like that, including my parents' Baptist minister neighbor. But different congregations can have different preferences.

Speaking of dads, Red's isn't mentioned.

Gabriela and Teagan have a good conversation over the phone, but given their ages and the setting (present day) I think it's more likely they would have been texting. Almost no pre-teens and teens I know prefer phone calls to texting.