Summary: On Amanda’s thirteenth birthday, her father is killed by a drunk driver while on the way to pick up her birthday present. She’s stunned when she overhears her mother blaming her: “If she hadn’t insisted on that stupid watch for her birthday, he would still be alive.” Her mom retreats into extra shifts at work, leaving Mandy with her grandmother and making her feel as if she has lost both parents.
To make matters worse, she’s the butt of cruel pranks at school. One day, some girls even glue her skirt to the chair! But things take a turn for the better when she befriends Paloma, an unusual new student at Central Middle School, who introduces her to yoga and meditation. And she reluctantly becomes friends with Rogelio, a fat boy who is bullied even more than she is by their classmates.
Mandy’s new friends, a dog named Lobo and an interesting school project help to ease the pain of her father’s death and her mother’s absence. She maintains a connection to her father by writing letters to him each night. But will she always be invisible to her mother?
Estela Bernal’s debut novel, a fast-paced and entertaining read for middle school teens, explores tough issues—including death and bullying—with sensitivity and humor.
Review: A few days ago a writer friend sent me an article about the difference between Middle Grade books and Young Adult books. The article was focused on writers sending their manuscripts for publishing, but it also made me realize why I had such trouble getting into Estela’ Bernal’s debut novel. In the article, the author reminded writers that readers often “read up” and since I teach 8th grade, I’m commonly recommending (and reading) novels on the “older YA” spectrum. While “Can You See Me Now?” is marketed at a YA novel, when reading it, it becomes clear that the novel is actually a Middle Grade novel. It is shorter than the average YA novel and the writing is much more simplistic. The article notes that MG novels tend to focus on “a characters immediate world” with little self-reflection and “Can You See Me Now?” fits the definition of a MG novel.
The lack of self-reflection in the novel is actually what bothered me the most. The story is very “on the surface”, not fully getting to the deeper emotional issues that Amanda is dealing with. Essentially Bernal’s novel lacks heart. Amanda’s father died tragically and her mother practically abandons her, and none of that emotional pain is reflected in the novel. Amanda writes letters to her father, which is very sweet and a realistic portrayal of how one grieves, but pages go by without her talking about her mother. I kept leaving the story because of that. I couldn’t understand why she’d go days, weeks, without a passing thought to her mother. The novel focused on her budding friendship with Paloma, Rogelio and the school project. I understand that the budding friendships is what helps Amanda heal, but the lighthearted approach Bernal took towards those relationships bothered me. Spending my days around middle schoolers, I know how deep, emotional beings they can be and I felt that Bernal didn’t quite grasp the complexity of the pre-teen/teenage mind.
Lastly, I had a lot of trouble connecting with Amanda, in that I didn’t really get to know her. I know her in a superficial way, not enough to care to want to read a novel about her. A book can have a strong premise, such as “Can You See Me Now?” does, but if a reader cannot connect to the main character, if we don’t have a good enough reason to root for her, then the novel falls flat. I was left wanting more from Amanda, more from this novel.
Recommendation: Tying back to my opening paragraph, I think the main reason why I didn’t like it is because I’m not used to reading Middle Grade books (which are aimed at an audience of 8-12 years old). While “Can You See Me Now?” would make a good MG novel, as a reader of YA, it doesn’t work for me. If you enjoy MG books, then I’d suggest you borrow the novel when you can, but if you are a fan of YA, then skip it.