July 28, 2017

Bent Not Broken: Madeline and Justin

Written by Lorna Schultz Nicholson
Clockwise Press
224 pp.
Ages 13+
March 2017

Lorna Schultz Nicholson's first two One-2-One books, Fragile Bones: Harrison & Anna (2015) and Born With: Erika & Gianni (2016), introduced high school students in the Best Buddies program.  In those books, students with autism and Down syndrome partnered with other teens who volunteered to provide physical and/or emotional support.  But, better than the support, they share friendships that grow and establish a community that reaches beyond the school.  Bent Not Broken is the newest book in the series, providing an uplifting tale that demonstrates the inarguable successes of the Best Buddies program.

Fourteen-year-old Madeline used to be faster, smarter, more accomplished than her twin Becky.  Then, at age eight, Madeline had an accident when the two were out on their bikes. Now Madeline feels defined by her brain damage that causes her to speak very slowly, to have regular meltdowns and experience wildly crazy emotions and to struggle in school.  Though Becky has been obliging her for years, still being one of the few who knows how to help Madeline when her emotions take over and she begins to hit herself about the head, Becky has found a new set of friends whom she begins to emulate though they are rude and engaged in inappropriate behaviours.  

Fortunately, Madeline has some positives in her life that ease much of her anxiety about her sister and her own vulnerabilities.  She gets to spend time with her Best Buddy, a senior named Justin ("I liked him because he didn't feel sorry for me; he just liked me"; pg. 16) who in turn finds being with Madeline helpful in coping with the death of his autistic sister who succumbed to an eating disorder.  Moreover, Madeline volunteers at a horse therapy barn where she once received therapy by spending time with the miniature horses.

The barn is Madeline's salvation and even becomes a haven for Justin and his mother, both finding some healing amongst the horses.  But Becky is less enthused now about fulfilling her own volunteering commitment there.  In fact, she begins to use the barn as an opportunity to sneak away with her friends and starts to take advantage of Madeline's affliction to benefit herself.  Though Madeline sees herself now as the weaker of the twins, she begins to achieve some wonderful successes socially and creatively while Becky begins a descent into dangerous circumstances.  Luckily, Madeline discovers she has the courage to step up and be there for her sister as Becky had been for her. 

Lorna Schultz Nicholson's books in the One-2-One series attest to the strengths we all have even when dealing with physical or mental trials, and that's why Bent Not Broken is the very best of titles and the very best of stories.  The imagery of something being bent not broken, like a willow bough, is a powerful one.  Being bent does not mean weak.  Think of bentwood furniture.  It's still strong, just in a different configuration than wood is typically used.  So too is Madeline after her accident and resulting brain injury but also Justin after his sister's death, his mother with her depression, Becky with her guilt, and Madeline's parents with their marriage.  None of them are the same.  All have been reshaped by circumstances.  Still there is resilience, the need to persevere and accept new postures.

There's a reason Bent Not Broken was selected by young readers as one of the ten titles recommended for Red Maple readers on the first  Summer Reading List of the Forest Kid Committee.  These young people could appreciate a book that spoke to them about being strong and compassionate regardless of the struggle.  Bent Not Broken, like the earlier books, speaks to the best of us and makes us want to be better, which we can be.

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