Review: Just Like Me by Nancy J. Cavanaugh

Just Like Me

Hardcover, 256 pages
Published April 5th 2016 by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
Source: Raincoast Books

There must be a handbook somewhere that states that all books with 12 year old protagonists must initially make their protagonists extremely unlikable and not easily sympathized with. Because not gonna lie, I was not at all happy with Julia when Just Like Me begins and though I thawed to her as the narrative progressed, my initial (intense) dislike left a residue.

Julia, Avery, and Becca are the same age and were adopted at around the same time from the same Chinese orphanage. Avery and Becca seem to be fine with their Chinese heritage but Julia is actually offensively flippant and dismissive about who she is. To a certain extent, I understand and empathize with her feelings. She lives in a family with parents who look nothing like her but who are doing everything they can to ensure Julia is in touch with her heritage. Except Julia doesn’t want to be reminded that she is not similar to them; she doesn’t want to be continuously aware that she is not half-Italian and half-Irish.

When her parents, after listening to the advice of a journalist/researcher (one or the other), send Julia to a week long summer camp with Becca and Avery, Julia feels she can do nothing but endure her time there. She doesn’t want to get to know her “Chinese sisters” or spend any time learning or being Chinese. She is dumped, along with 5 other girls, in a cabin and told that to win the camp-wide competition, they need to get along with each and learn to work together as a team to attain victory.

Only bad thing? None of the girls can get along well enough to actually form a team. Julia has her own issues but Becca and Avery are their own people and their own flaws. Then there’s Vanessa, the quintessential mean girl and Meredith, her flunkie. There’s Gina who is a foster at Vanessa’s aunt’s place, so her pseudo-cousin. Vanessa loathes Gina and Gina does everything to provoke Vanessa’s ire. To say things are chaotic is putting it mildly.

Cavanaugh does an admirable job of threading all narratives into one primary narrative. Her characters are vibrant and alive, individuated and complete. Julia’s emotions have a ring of truth and honestly, she’s a prickly thing and it is difficult not to roll your eyes at her absolute refusal to associate with anything Chinese in the beginning but her eventual realization that the only one who is pigeon-holing her is…her own self is worth waiting for.

I did wish that Cavanaugh devoted more time to creating an actual relationship between Becca, Avery, and Julia. I realize that some would think it a bit too simple for girls with a shared history and similar origins to be friendly but I have found that sometimes a shared experience creates the foundation necessary for friendship. Becca, Avery, and Julia are very different people and their Chinese heritage doesn’t mean they are different iterations of the same person but it also doesn’t mean they can’t get each other in a way no one else does.

I did like Gina and I loved how her conflicts throw Julia’s issues in stark relief and perhaps give her some context. I did think that the story sometimes strayed too far to campy and there are several moments of super cheese hidden here and there.

All said and done, however, Just Like Me is a solid read and one I would recommend to parents and librarians for kids who may not be going through the same exact thing but will probably empathize with Julia’s journey from feeling alienated and lost to a sense of belonging even being a square among triangles.

Dear Ms. Marcia,

Did my birth mom love me?

All Mrs. Fillmore’s “research this” and “research that” didn’t answer that question. So because I don’t have an answer, I hold on to that baby blanket and pretend not just that the blanket came from my birth mom, but that my birth mom hugged and kissed me when she wrapped me in that blanket.

Julia