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After Zero

Review

After Zero

After years of being homeschooled by her mother, Elise is finally in public school with her best friend Mel. Only, things aren’t going as planned and before she knows it, she’s barely speaking. Each word Elise utters, she feels, is a strike against her and something she has done wrong, so she keeps a tally in her notebook. But there’s a reason Elise isn’t speaking that extends far behind her schooldays and AFTER ZERO by Christina Collins tells that story.

Drawing on her own childhood experiences, Collins creates a compelling character in Elise. The eighth-grader is smart, inquisitive and a little socially awkward. She is terribly worried about fitting in and, despite her best efforts to become friends with Mel’s friends, the opposite becomes true. To combat this, Elise decides that the less she says the better.

But this doesn’t make things better. It makes them worse. Soon, Elise is labeled with the dreaded word “quiet.” In her attempt to disappear, she makes herself more visible. She draws negative attention. After so much silence, it’s hard for her to find her voice. That doesn’t mean Elise has nothing to say.

"Elise is a strong and complex character and Collins should be given credit for presenting such a powerful voice."

The first-person narrative Collins constructed gives the reader much insight into Elise’s mind. Her thoughts detail her insecurities and her fears, her hopes and, most importantly, her loneliness. It’s not just school that’s troubling Elise. Her home life is bleak with her mother barely paying her any mind. There are family secrets that Elise starts to scratch the surface and her mother’s reaction is to retreat further into her grief and herself, unable to provide her daughter with the support or answers she needs.

One day at school, a guidance counselor asks Elise to show around two new students who are transitioning from homeschool to the public middle school Elise attends. This creates a quagmire and Elise struggles to befriend the siblings, particularly Conn, while still keeping her daily word count down. An internal struggle comes into play for Elise, pitting her desire to stay silent (not quiet, she hates the word “quiet”) against the intrinsic human need for connection. This becomes the central conflict in the story. She begins to look inside herself for that need, only to be confused by the images her mind conjures about her mother’s secrets. It’s those that she holds onto as truth.

The longer Elise goes without speaking, the more difficult it becomes for her to speak, even when Conn’s family, who she has come to know, hurls baseless accusations at her. Elise’s fight or flight mentality takes over, making her run and retreat further into herself. The one thing she needs to do for people to understand her --- to speak --- is the one thing she can’t bring herself to do.

Well, not all people. There’s Conn, who keeps trying to be her friend and understand, much like the birds he observes with the binoculars that never leave his side, and English teacher Ms. Standish who encourages Elise to use the written say what she cannot speak. Her mother, dealing with her own demons, begins to understand how best intentions can become someone else’s worst fears.

Elise is a strong and complex character and Collins should be given credit for presenting such a powerful voice. The author also touches on the difficulties homeschooled children face while acclimating to a traditional school setting. This is an important perspective to get across, because it’s not one that is often explored.

The internal workings behind loneliness and the need for human connection can be difficult concepts to get across. Using Elise as a conduit, Collins makes the case for how important it is to be kind to one another and that there is more to the “quiet kid” than being “quiet.” Collins advocates that ability to understand one another, no matter how difficult it may seem, is crucial. It’s an important lesson for children of all ages to learn.

Reviewed by Liz Sauchelli on September 27, 2018

After Zero
by Christina Collins

  • Publication Date: September 4, 2018
  • Genres: Children's 8-12, Fiction, Social Issues
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
  • ISBN-10: 1492655325
  • ISBN-13: 9781492655329