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Leah Johnson’s Middle Grade Debut Will Take You Right Back to Seventh Grade

Let me just say: I will read anything by Leah Johnson. If she rewrote the phone book, I would get one. Her writing is so voicey, and her characters jump off the page. Her debut YA, You Should See Me In A Crown (a book I loved so much my phone’s auto-suggest recognizes it) had me hooked, and her middle grade debut, Ellie Engle Saves Herself has sealed the deal.

Ellie Engle has a lot on her plate: She’s getting ready to start middle school, and she’s pretty sure she likes her best friend Abby as more than a best friend. On the night before the first day of seventh grade, Ellie spends the night at Abby’s house because her mom is working late again. The girls wake up with a start; an earthquake has rocked their small Indiana town. An earthquake in Indiana is weird enough, but suddenly Ellie feels different. She can hear every single noise and conversation in the cafeteria, is hyperaware of her surroundings, and she definitely brought her Betta fish Burt back from the dead. What is going on?

The only thing Ellie can do is consult her beloved comic book collection. Surely, they would have the answer. And they do: Ellie’s a necromancer; she can bring things back to life. Her powers must have come during the earthquake. So now, Ellie has to figure out how to navigate seventh grade, being in love with her best friend, AND super powers? How much can one girl handle?

As previously stated, Leah Johnson is a master of voice. Ellie jumps off the page from the first sentence — you feel like you’ve known her for her entire life after only reading a page. After about 20 pages, I declared I would die for Ellie Engle and also ruin the life of anyone who hurt her. Call it my momma bear instinct, but I would protect this little necromancer with my life. Johnson imbues Ellie with so much character that you feel an instant connection. This book kicked me square back to the 1998-’99 school year and navigating the absolute hell that is seventh grade. I don’t think we talk enough about how hard that particular year is. For me, it was the middle of three of the worst years of my life. So much changes when you’re in seventh grade, especially socially.

Ellie has always been very secure in her place as the quiet part of the dynamic duo that is her and Abby. She understands that every Batman needs their Robin, and while Abby dreams of “making her mark” and being just like her favorite celebrity Willa Moon, Ellie wants to keep her small world just the way it is. Clearly, having super powers blows up that plan, but she cannot anticipate how much being in middle school was going to blow up her world anyway. Abby is determined to become a cheerleader, and in doing so becomes closer to Marley Keilor, the most popular girl in their grade. Ellie is jealous of Abby and Marley’s friendship for a myriad of reasons, but mainly because she is no longer the center of Abby’s orbit. And when it becomes clear that Ellie’s powers are here to stay, it causes even more friction between the girls, to the point where Abby tells Ellie that maybe she doesn’t want to be friends with her anymore. Understandably, Ellie is shattered. It’s so much more than losing your best friend, which is huge when you’re 12. But because Abby is also the first girl Ellie has ever had a crush on, the loss has a profound effect.

Making new friends is hard, especially in middle school. Johnson gives Ellie the opportunity to find new friends in a very organic way, in the unlikeliest of places. Breonna, a quiet girl who is just as studious and nerdy as Ellie, becomes a friend naturally through their shared interests. Bree becomes a support for Ellie as her friendship with Abby starts to deteriorate, providing Ellie with a soft place to land and the opportunity to feel seen fully. Her other new friend Sammy, is an unlikely ally. He is the boy all the girls (except Ellie) have a crush on. Abby and Marley literally swoon whenever Sammy is near them, which means he’s Ellie’s sworn nemesis. Things change for them during a group project when Sammy (who it turns out, hates the attention he gets from the girls) asks Ellie and Bree if they want to work with him. As Ellie gets to know him, she discovers they have a lot more in common than she could have previously imagined.

The relationship between Ellie and the two primary adults in her life is also something that I really enjoyed. Johnson always does such a great job in making sure her characters have a strong adult presence in their lives to guide them, and Ellie Engle is no exception. Ellie’s parents are divorced, and her mom has to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. It puts a strain on their relationship, and their financial situation is one of the driving forces behind Ellie trying to learn to harness her powers. After she brings radishes in the school garden back to life, she realizes it’s a way to feed her family so her mom doesn’t have to worry so much about grocery costs. When her powers are revealed, her mom loses work, which only makes Ellie feel worse. Ellie deals with anxiety, and she spends a lot of time trying to shield her mom from her fears because of the burdens her mom has to carry. Eventually, Ellie realizes that her mom is always going to be a safe space for her, especially when things get hard. Johnson has spoken very openly about being raised by a single mother, and you can tell by the way she writes the scenes between Ellie and her mom that it comes from a deeply personal place.

Ellie finds a kinship in Mr. Walker, the elderly man who runs the neighborhood bakery. He was best friends with her beloved grandfather, Poppy and now acts as a surrogate grandfather. Even though Ellie has known him her whole life, there’s so much she doesn’t know. When she discovers he has the same powers she does, it allows them to get to know each other better. I really love grandparent relationships, so this was such a heartwarming relationship to watch develop. Mr. Walker isn’t only the closest thing Ellie has to a grandparent, he’s also the only person who can help her figure out her powers. There’s still a lot about his own he doesn’t know, and watching them learn together is really sweet.

When Ellie and her mom are shunned by the whole town, Sammy and Bree stand up for Ellie, while Abby looks on but stays silent. Eventually, she does come to her senses, and I commend Ellie for being able to put boundaries on their relationship. She’s acknowledging the harm that Abby’s actions have done, and I know I would not have been able to do that at 12. Hell, I still can’t always do that at 37.

Ellie Engle Saves Herself isn’t solely for children. They are, of course, the target audience, but if you’ve ever found yourself on a journey of self understanding, you will see yourself in Ellie. Most importantly, this story gives Black girls (and women) someone who looks like them and is the hero of her own story, when so often we’re not allowed to be. As Leah Johnson points out in the author’s note, “no one can take away our right to exist without fear or shame.” And that’s the power of storytelling.

Ellie Engle Saves Herself by Leah Johnson is out now.

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Sa'iyda Shabazz

Sa'iyda is a writer and mom who lives in LA with her partner, son and 3 adorable, albeit very extra animals. She has yet to meet a chocolate chip cookie she doesn't like, spends her free time (lol) reading as many queer romances as she can, and has spent the better part of her life obsessed with late 90s pop culture.

Sa'iyda has written 121 articles for us.


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