As readers, we all have books that speak to us. As I tell my students, we all read the same book differently. Why? Because each reader approaches a text with different life experiences.
I’m going to warn you, this is the most difficult book review I’ve had to do because of my own connection to the text. I read the book in one night and couldn’t stop ugly crying for a solid hour. Never have I read a book that has connected with me on such a personal and intimate level. I have purposely waited a few days to write this post because I’ve been trying to figure out how to get my thoughts out in a way that makes sense.
Braced by Alyson Gerber is a phenomenal story about Rachel Brooks who has to wear a back brace for scoliosis.
Scoliosis is when a person’s spine doesn’t grow straight during puberty. The severity depends on the degree of the spine’s curvature. Most scoliosis patients are fitted with a padded back brace to try and shift the spine. However, in some cases, the brace does not correct the curve enough and surgery is required.
Rachel is an average seventh grader. She has two best friends, plays soccer, and is about to be a big sister. Like her mom, Rachel has scoliosis and is required to wear a back brace for 23 hours a day in the hopes of avoiding spinal surgery.
The story follows Rachel’s journey living with the brace. From the appointment with Dr. Paul where she finds out she needs the brace, to telling her friends and people at school, to learning to play soccer, readers are part of every step.
One of my favorite aspects of the book is how personal and honest Rachel is to readers. Like other middle school girls, Rachel is going through puberty and dealing with so many different emotions. She has a crush on a boy named Tate and wants to play offense on the soccer team. She’s embarrassed when she goes to see Dr. Paul because the is basically naked in front of strangers. She gets super excited when Tate texts her about personal stuff and not just about science class.
Rachel also opens up about the struggles of wearing a back brace. She gets frustrated when she can’t find clothes to fit her. She’s mad at her mom for not listening to her. She’s scared to tell her friends about her brace. She works incredibly hard to play soccer differently so she can make the team. She’s hurt when the popular kids make fun of her brace. It’s challenging enough to go through middle school years without the additional worries of being different.
One of the major conflicts in the novel is Rachel’s relationship with her very pregnant mom. As readers, we learn that Rachel’s mom had scoliosis, wore a brace, and eventually had surgery. Mom is so focused on Rachel wearing her brace for the 23 hours to avoid the surgery that she loses sight of the emotional part of the brace. This disconnect drives a wedge between the two, which intensifies Rachel’s feelings of isolation because if anyone should understand what is happening, it’s her mom. The writing of this conflict is realistic, and is one that all middle school girls can relate to.
As adults, we sometimes forget how important friends can be to kids. As a middle school teacher, I have seen my fair share of middle school social drama. Braced dives into the support system that friends can offer one another. Hazel and Frannie are Rachel’s best friends. While they are both dealing with their own situations, they both help Rachel combat the kids at school, soccer stress, and Rachel’s mom. If it wasn’t for these two young ladies, it’s clear that Rachel would have struggled even more.
I love how Gerber incorporated texting and realistic social situations to appeal and relate to current middle school readers. As adults, we don’t have that first hand experience of texting a boy when we were in seventh grade, so it’s hard to sometimes realize the impact that social media and technology can have on kids. While this book doesn’t focus on social media posts, it does remind us that when the school day is over, the drama/situations don’t just stay at school.
While I loved the characters and plot of this novel, one of the most important components was the theme of isolation. Rachel has no one to talk to about what is happening to her because they are not experiencing it with her. No one understands how insanely hot the brace gets in the summer, or how exciting it is to find clothes that actually fit. Kids at school just see Rachel as “different”, and while she has a great friend support system, they just don’t get it. The story ends with Rachel googling support groups and finding Curvy Girls (a scoliosis support group) and realizing that she is not alone. I loved how Gerber ended with this because it is important for kids to realize there are always others out there with similar experiences.
Lastly, my absolute favorite part of this book was the Author’s Note where Gerber discusses her personal experiences with scoliosis and her brace. “It wasn’t until I was in my twenties, when I started talking about my experience of being treated for scoliosis, that I realized how alone I’d felt.” Never ever has a quote spoken to me as loudly as this one.
I was diagnosed with scoliosis in fifth grade. I had to wear my brace with the Bugs Bunny tattoo for 20 hours a day. I had an “S” curve that was extremely stubborn and did not respond well to the brace.
I was very fortunate to have a supportive team of teachers. If the activity in gym class would make me uncomfortable, I just told the teacher and she let me sit out and watch. I didn’t want to change in front of the other girls in my grade, so I was allowed to use the teacher’s bathroom. I had copies of textbooks at home so I didn’t have to worry about carrying them back and forth to school. I was fortunate that I never dealt with anything hurtful socially. I was always open and honest with kids about my brace, and never had to experience bullying.
On September 11, 2001 I went to go see Dr. Reiger for my usual progress check. I did the usual x-ray and waited in the cold room with my purple socks on. After he came in and asked about my boyfriend (he had a fabulous bedside manner) he told me my curve had progressed to 55 degrees and was heading towards my heart. I would need emergency spinal surgery.
On January 2, 2002 I had my titanium rod fused to my spine. For the next six months I healed a little bit more every day. I was out of school for four months, and slowly transitioned to half days towards the end of the year.
I remember one day I refused to go to school. I had a screaming match with my mom and I kept trying to tell her no one understands what I’m feeling, but she didn’t get it. Back then there was no social media and the only book was Deenie by Judy Blume (lovely book, but a little outdated for even back then). That feeling has never completely gone away for me. As I get older I talk about it more, even to my students, and I amaze myself that I was so strong.
Today, I don’t worry so much about my 18 inch scar showing in bathing suits. I had a healthy pregnancy and safe delivery with Miss Molly, even with the rod. I know what my body can handle and what it can’t (I will NEVER jump on a trampoline again). And one day when Molly is old enough, we will read Braced together and talk.
June is Scoliosis Awareness Month. As a teacher and a parent, I’m reminded how important it is for us to listen to kids. Even if we don’t understand or think the same way they do, kids have to talk about their feelings. We need to read books like Braced, and have open and honest discussions. I will admit that I cried writing this book review, and I’m pretty sure I have a tear drop on my glasses. But, that’s just a sign of fantastic writing.