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Book Review: Violets Are Blue by Barbara Dee

Publisher’s description

From the author of the acclaimed My Life in the Fish Tank and Maybe He Just Likes You comes a moving and relatable middle grade novel about secrets, family, and the power of forgiveness.

Twelve-year-old Wren loves makeup—special effect makeup, to be exact. When she is experimenting with new looks, Wren can create a different version of herself. A girl who isn’t in a sort-of-best friendship with someone who seems like she hates her. A girl whose parents aren’t divorced and doesn’t have to learn to like her new stepmom.

So, when Wren and her mom move to a new town for a fresh start, she is cautiously optimistic. And things seem to fall into place when Wren meets potential friends and gets selected as the makeup artist for her school’s upcoming production of Wicked.

Only, Wren’s mom isn’t doing so well. She’s taking a lot of naps, starts snapping at Wren for no reason, and always seems to be sick. And what’s worse, Wren keeps getting hints that things aren’t going well at her new job at the hospital, where her mom is a nurse. And after an opening night disaster leads to a heartbreaking discovery, Wren realizes that her mother has a serious problem—a problem that can’t be wiped away or covered up. 

After all the progress she’s made, can Wren start over again with her devastating new normal? And will she ever be able to heal the broken trust with her mom?

Amanda’s thoughts

Barbara Dee is writing some of the best middle grade out there. Fact.

Here’s the problem that Wren’s mom is struggling with, the problem referenced up in the summary but not explicitly said: she’s addicted to opioids. And she’s Wren’s only parent around (her dad is in NY with his new wife and kids), so things are ROUGH for Wren. But you’d maybe never know that. She’s pretty self-sufficient, doesn’t really let on to others how bad her mom has gotten (and Wren doesn’t know what her mom is doing—she just knows she’s sleeping/out of it a lot, lying, missing work, and not really being on top of the whole “mom” thing), and she just kind of muddles along. Also, she is just a kid. She misses or misunderstands lots of signs that something serious may be happening with her mom, but she’s in 7th grade; it’s not her job to be monitoring her mother for drug use. Wren is busy with her own life, adjusting to her new school (and friends and classmates) and getting really into doing special effects makeup, including for the school play. And she’s adjusting to her new family situation, with her dad halfway across the country from her, with a new wife and baby twins. Wren’s mom doesn’t want her to “talk behind her back” to her dad, so Wren never expresses any concerns about what’s going on with her mom to her dad.

It’s not until things get REALLY bad for her mom that Wren really knows what’s going on. She’s been in survival mode for so long, just trying to keep everyone happy, not make problems, and pretend she’s always fine, that it feels like a LOT to suddenly have other people stepping in to help her and clarifying what’s happening.

While her mother’s opioid addiction is the most Important part of this story, there are many smaller important parts that also feel so significant to Wren. Negotiating new friends in middle school is almost always fraught with lots of peril, and Wren has ups and downs with her new classmates as she tries to figure out who’s nice, who seems fake, and who’s maybe just misunderstood. And her whole obsession with special effects makeup is pretty cool. She’s always watching tutorials and practicing on her friends and her mom. I loved this interest for her, given her very real need to be interested in wearing a mask, becoming someone else, changing your story, etc.

Like all of Dee’s others books, this one handles the more mundane and relatable just as seriously and skillfully as the heavy and specific. Both are shown as significant. For many middle schoolers, they have a lot going on in their home lives, a lot that they may be hiding. For Wren, we see her get through what she can alone, while feeling confused and not necessarily well cared for, but we also see her surrounded by support, love, and, eventually, help. A great read.


Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781534469181
Publisher: Aladdin
Publication date: 10/12/2021
Age Range: 9 – 13 Years

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