Today’s Top Book of 2017 pick is one for the middle grade readers who like something authentic and realistic, steeped in humour and depth. We received The Ethan I Was Before from Hachette Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:
Ethan had been many things. He was always ready for adventure and always willing to accept a dare, especially from his best friend, Kacey. But that was before. Before the accident that took Kacey from him. Before his family moved from the city he loves to a tiny town in the middle of nowhere.
Ethan’s new home feels like the place for second chances. It’s also home to Coralee, a girl with a big personality and even bigger stories. Coralee may be just the friend Ethan needs, except Ethan isn’t the only one with secrets. Coralee’s are catching up with her, and what she’s hiding might be putting both their lives at risk.
The Ethan I Was Before is a story of love and loss, wonder and adventure, and ultimately of hope.
It took a little while for this book to hit me the way it did but having finished it and had some time to reflect on it, The Ethan I Was Before is definitely one of those special books for middle grade readers that will stay in the reader’s mind long after they’ve put it down. With a slight Bridge to Terabithia feel, Ethan moves to a new, insular town after a tragedy involving his best friend Kacey. When Ethan starts to form a strong bond with Coralee in his new school, his parents are understandably worried that his unresolved issues from the “Kacey incident” will resurface in this new friendship to the detriment of both kids involved. Little do his parents know, but Coralee seems to be just what Ethan needs to trust himself again and learn to trust others.
There’s a lot going on throughout the book that will have young readers questioning the motives of various characters – is Coralee really to be trusted with her “colourful” stories? Will Ethan’s brother ever want to talk to him since Ethan ruined his potential baseball career with the move? Is the big house haunted or is something more secretive going on amongst the residents of the town? I found these questions made the reading experience richer and was impressed to see that the author manages to flesh out each of these storylines by the end of the book and provide at least some answers to each. Part of the beauty of the story for me lies in the fact that no character is two-dimensional. Every significant character in Ethan’s sphere – both child and adult – is made more authentic by the issues that they are struggling with, all of which are revealed by the end of the book.
The book includes flashbacks of sorts and thereby slowly reveals the details of the Kacey incident. What happened during this tragedy may not be exactly what the reader expects – deliberately so, it seems – and this also allowed for a change of perspective on what exactly it is that Ethan is trying to process.
Overall, I found this to be a mature and quite sophisticated story for a middle grade audience that didn’t patronise readers by tying everything up in expected and obvious ways.