"review" · fiction · juvenile lit · recommend

I, Emma Freke

I, Emma Freke by Elizabeth Atkinson

Carolrhoda Books (Lerner), 2010.

Juvenile (Middle-Grade) Fiction – Hardcover, 233.

Found this gem via Stacy Dillon’s Review at “Welcome to My Tweendom,” and waited and waited and waited for it to come in at the Library. Then, you may recall, the daughter got a hold of it first and said I definitely had to read it.

A heartfelt story, I, Emma Freke, is a wonderful story of acceptance. Emma who is above average height for a 12-year-old is an outcast until she goes to a Freke family reunion and finds out that maybe she’d rather be her own freak, rather than be a Freke. ~Natalya (aka the daughter)

It is not just her height that torments Emma Freke, and it isn’t just her name that embarrasses her. Elizabeth Atkinson packs her novel to the top with issues. If I had known, I might not have taken this read on, but now that I have survived it, I can assure you that it wasn’t as painful as I would have otherwise anticipated. It was actually quite good.

Emma has no idea who her father is, only that her unconventional mother Donatella gave them both her second (and last) husband’s name because it was Freke (rhymes w/ Beak). Because of her greater than average height and intelligence, her non-existent social skills, and the fact she sees the school psychologist a couple times a week, Emma doesn’t like to be at school–so she leaves early and doesn’t go when she can, preferring to work at her mother’s bead store below their apartment, a store that Emma seems to man more than her mother who may or may not be off on a date, or reading cards, or doing massages, or… Emma’s best and only friend is 10–Penelope whom Emma often thinks “should feel most like a freak,  but she was probably the happiest, friendliest person I ever knew” (12). Penelope was adopted from Liberia by two well-off Gray Moms (“they both had gray hair and looked more like grandmothers than mothers”). Donatella’s elderly father lives with them as well as his bulldog who has frequent digestive issues. But other than the concerns over her mother dating someone gross and being passed off as the hired help rather than daughter, home-life is what it is. It is the trouble with school that is really bothering Emma–will she have to go to some special school next year?

It is Atkinson’s sense of humor, her pragmatism, and her compassion that keeps this novel afloat. Atkinson also translates Emma’s youth quite artfully into a wonderfully convincing character, as dramatically tuned as the vivacious characters she surrounds her with. As a first-person narrator, Emma isn’t maudlin, but self-deprecating and determined. Her aplomb is infectious. And good and hopeful turns interlace the more worrisome.

When the invitation for the Freke Family Reunion comes Emma has just confronted her mom about whether or not she was adopted–we were all wondering. Emma goes to the reunion alone, with Penelope and another new friend’s help, she gets outfitted for the adventure, but disaster ever looms, as do the quiet insinuations that the Freke (this occasion rhyming with Becky) Family isn’t so perfect either. Emma may have found people that look like her, but does she really want to be like them? It is a lovely moment when Emma lists the positive ways in which she takes after each side of her family. We already keep a running list in our minds as to how awful each side stacks up.

One would think that the things that complicate the plot aka Emma’s life would come across as an exaggeration, but Atkinson is all too convincing in her reminder that life is complex and messy and some things are outside of our control–and some things are. I, Emma Freke is wonderfully life-affirming and ultimately inspiring. Atkinson leaves us with Emma catching up with her self and the life she’s been given and it looks great, not sappy or forced, but inevitable, because Emma is who she always was–she just had to see the value in it.


aside:  I found it a strange coincidence to have been followed Adam Rex’s The True Meaning of Smekday with this. Both novels have 12-year-old protagonists who are really capable daughters of single mothers (who are Italian and unconventional parents).

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