Hi friends! Today I’m here with a review of my first middle grade book of the year. One of my 2021 goals is to post more reviews of the MG books I read! Before I get to my review, read on for a bit about the book.
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AUTHOR: E.L. Shen
CATEGORY/AUDIENCE: Middle Grade
RELEASE: January 19, 2021
PUBLISHER: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)
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SYNOPSIS: “E. L. Shen’s The Comeback is a heartfelt, #OwnVoices middle-grade debut about a young girl trying to be a champ–in figure skating and in life.
Twelve-year-old Maxine Chen is just trying to nail that perfect landing: on the ice, in middle school, and at home, where her parents worry that competitive skating is too much pressure for a budding tween. Maxine isn’t concerned, however–she’s determined to glide to victory. But then a bully at school starts teasing Maxine for her Chinese heritage, leaving her stunned and speechless. And at the rink, she finds herself up against a stellar new skater named Hollie, whose grace and skill threaten to edge Maxine out of the competition. With everything she knows on uneven ice, will Maxine crash under the pressure? Or can she power her way to a comeback?
Set in Lake Placid, New York, this is a spunky yet stirring middle-grade story that examines racism, female rivalry and friendship, and the enduring and universal necessity of love and support.”
Meet Maxine Chen: 12 year-old aspiring ice skater, Chinese-American, sassy and classy. Things are going pretty great for Maxine–her ice skating is improving each day and she can practically taste her Olympic future. Plus, she’s always got her ride-or-die best friend by her side. But when Maxine’s white classmate starts slinging racist insults at her, Maxine feels totally alone. As the bullying increases, the chasm between Maxine and her best friend widens; Maxine finds herself getting closer to Hollie, a new skater in town, and this new friendship just might help her find her voice.
The Comeback is a charming, heart-warming middle grade novel that deals with so many complicated themes. As Maxine becomes the target of bullying because of her Chinese-American heritage, she finds herself struggling with her own internalized racism. Maxine feels out of place in her mostly-white town of Lake Placid, and is even tempted to change her appearance in order to look more like her white classmates. This is an experience that I know so many young readers will relate to. E.L. Shen presents these complicated, heavy conversations around racism and bullying in a thoughtful way that works perfectly for the age range for this book.
This is a coming of age novel that is very much about growing up and watching your friendships change. Throughout the novel, Maxine watches as a longtime friendship begins to shift. Her best friend becomes friendly with Maxine’s bully and is reluctant to stand up for Maxine, which creates a rift between the two throughout the book. Maxine has to process this change in her friendship dynamic while also learning to make space for a new friend, Hollie, whom she meets at the skating rink. I love stories about friendship growing pains and learning to let go of old friendships and making room for new ones; The Comeback tackles this so beautifully. While Maxine struggles to let go of her former best friend and open up to Hollie, she finds that this new friendship gives her the strength and inspiration that she needs.
Maxine is a lovable, relatable character who is struggling with very real things. I think she’s a character that many young readers will see themselves in, and I especially loved that she had a big dose of sass and wit! Hollie was an important addition to the story, and I loved that she has a very different experience than Maxine: Hollie is white and is homeschooled in order to train for skating, while Maxine still goes to public school. Hollie also struggles with familial pressure in a way that Maxine doesn’t. These two characters are deeply different and the juxtaposition makes for an unlikely yet heartwarming friendship.
Debut author E.L. Shen has definitely won me over with The Comeback. Maxine’s voice feels so real and the novel was utterly heartwarming. Shen’s writing is engaging, funny, and authentic in a way that will hook middle grade readers of all ages. I found the pacing to be spot-on, and I didn’t want Maxine’s story to end. One of my favorite aspects of the story was how much Maxine looks up to the Asian-American ice skaters who’ve come before her–this felt like a love letter to honor those skaters and to continue their legacy.
You can bet I’ll be keeping my eye out for future middle grade releases from E.L. Shen. I’ll be recommending The Comeback to readers who enjoyed Ana on the Edge by A.J. Sass, Not Your All-American Girl by Wendy Wan-Long Shang & Madelyn Rosenberg, and American as Paneer Pie by Supriya Kelkar. This was my first middle grade read of 2021, and I couldn’t have picked a better one to start the year with.
Thank you to NetGalley and FSG for the digital review copy!