Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World by Ashley Herring Blake
Little, Brown BFYR, March 2018
Reviewed from hardcover
Plot Summary: A tornado interrupts twelve-year-old Ivy’s world, destroying her family’s home. Displaced by the disaster and disconnected from her family, Ivy begins to feel isolated. Meanwhile, Ivy also loses her secret journal—her “portable, papery hope chest” (2)—in which she has drawn pictures that no one else has seen. Pictures of herself and another girl holding hands. Along with notes urging Ivy to talk to someone, Ivy’s treasured drawings begin to resurface page-by-page in her locker. Ivy writes back, wondering if (read: hoping that) this pen-pal is the girl from her drawings.
Queer Rep: Ivy and her best friend Taryn have a term for what happens when silence grows between them when they’ve spent a lot of time together: “pondering mysteries” (265). I can’t think of a better term to encapsulate what this book does. Feeling invisible as the middle child in the wake of trauma, Ivy ponders the mystery of herself. She explores her identity through art. Her story is a complex, beautifully-written study of someone who is questioning their sexuality.
For me, so much of the book is about vocabulary. Ivy doesn’t have the language to counteract the heteronormativity around her—due to a number of factors, including shame. She first hears another girl use the word “girlfriend” in a relationship sense when her sister’s best friend comes out. But Ivy’s sister doesn’t tell her friend that it’s okay, sending a message to Ivy that Ivy’s not okay either.
When Ivy begins to stay with Robin at the inn, she sees another model of queerness and encounters the word “partner.” In Robin (a black lesbian) and her partner Jessa (a bi Latina) Ivy sees queer love that is not only accepted by others but blossoming into marriage. Ivy sees a photograph of the couple kissing—a visual counterpoint to Ivy’s sketches not just because hers show innocent-but-important hand holding, but because the photography medium is inherently more realistic.
Throughout the narrative, Blake’s pacing and structure gives Ivy time to ponder the mysteries of “girlfriend,” “partner,” and other words. As Blake summarizes Ivy’s story within the story (Ivy’s titular “letter to the world”), this book is ultimately “about a girl who [is] figuring out that she [gets] crushes on girls instead of boys, who [is] figuring out how to love her friends and how to let her friends love her” (307). The real Stonewall committee will have a hard time not falling in love with Ivy.
Final Word: I can’t deny that the ending’s Emily Dickinson-inspired art project feels a bit trite. But this book has so, so, so much heart. It’s a perfect example of what strong, queer middle grade looks like—and will hopefully be, to keep with the Emily Dickinson theme, the committee’s sunset in a cup.
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