May 30, 2016

Born With: Erika and Gianni

by Lorna Schultz Nicholson
Clockwise Press
231 pp.
Ages 13+
March 2016

Clockwise Press launched its young adult series One-2-One with Fragile Bones: Harrison and Anna (2015), also by Lorna Schultz Nicholson, focusing on the relationship between two teens in the Best Buddies program, a world-wide organization that aims to help individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities integrate successfully  into their communities. Born With features two other teens, both with a love of musical theatre: Erika, a fourteen-year-old born with Down Syndrome and Gianni, a teen who’s struggling with his sexuality.  This is their story, a powerful one for their trueness of thought, action and self-appreciation.

Erika and Gianni both audition for the school’s musical Grease. While Erika is thrilled to get selected to sing and dance in the chorus for three songs, Gianni is disappointed to get slotted for the comedic role of Eugene, losing the coveted lead role of Danny Zuko to the more athletic but less talented Richard.  Also cast are Erika and Gianni’s friend Sonya, as Sandy, and a boy named Bilal to whom Gianni is secretly attracted.

Gianni is determined to be stellar in the role of Eugene and to help Erika rehearse her lines and steps, ensuring that both will be successful.  But the two teens have more on their plates than singing and dancing. Erika’s father has ALS and his condition is worsening, and, though she takes her responsibilities for him very seriously, all she wants is for him to see her dance.  On the other hand, Gianni is coming to terms with his sexuality and what he wants out of life, convinced he already doesn’t fit his father’s dream for him, and that he can’t be himself until he is able to graduate from high school and leave his big Italian family.  But secrets have a way of becoming revealed, especially when Erika has been tutored in not keeping secrets, even if they are someone else’s personal business.

Born With takes on the monumental task of showcasing characters living with aspects of their lives over which they have no control: a genetic disorder, and sexual orientation.  Erika has a great understanding and acceptance of the strengths and limitations of her genetic disorder, and works to meet her needs, advocating for herself while celebrating in her own successes.
Sometimes people don’t think I can be serious or that I can learn things, but I can–I can do lots of things after I’m serious and listen. And focus. Focus. (pg. 9)
Likewise, Gianni has compassionate insight into Erika but he has yet to accept himself, confused over his sexuality, still processing what he is feeling and with whom to share that secret.
Tonight Erika’s honesty was creating chaos in my life.  But, seriously, what difference did it make who I was in the school musical?  That was a relatively little issue in comparison to the rest of my life. (pg. 190)
Both Erika and Gianni must navigate how others feel about them and make them feel, while dealing with family, friends, peers, ignorant bullies, and others.  The high school years are tenuous enough but Erika and Gianni have struggles that many of us could not imagine, and yet they dare to be themselves and are able to thrive.  By wrapping their stories in the joyful musical that is Grease, another story about being true to oneself, Lorna Schultz Nicholson has written an inspirational and triumphant story of acceptance in Born With: Erika and Gianni.

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