Sensitive, by Allayne Webster
This middlegrade novel is beautifully written and completely engrossing - I read it over a couple of days, reluctant to leave the world of SJ (Samantha) behind because her voice was so authentic - raw and honest and funny - and I felt so invested in her welfare. This one has been on my radar for a little while now (published in 2019) - and I'm so glad I read it.
Thirteen-year-old Samantha and her family have moved from Broken Hill to a new town and a new school, and Samantha is determined to reinvent herself. She will go from being Samantha - the kid with a chronic skin condition and allergies - to the cool and confident SJ. All she needs to do is keep her skin condition a secret and she'll fit right in with the cool set at school. Pretty simple, right?
Initially things seem to go to plan. SJ finds herself making friends with the affable Livvy and her smooth-skinned popular friends. She even manages to capture the attention of cute boy Sam.
But trying to cover things up is not always easy - and as her façade starts to slip, SJ finds it more and more difficult to keep her chronic eczema a secret. Things start to spiral out of control and SJ comes to realise that reinventing herself is not as easy as she'd hoped.
If SJ exposes her true self, will she lose the friendships she's so carefully cultivated?
This is a captivating story about friendship and courage and identity and living with a chronic illness. Readers will immediately feel drawn to SJ because of her intimate style of telling story - despite the heartbreak she experiences her voice is full of wit and humour.
I suspect many young readers will relate to SJ's sometimes turbulent relationship with her mum. We can see that SJ's mum just wants SJ to be well, and suffers her own feelings of denial, guilt and sadness - but this manifests itself at times in being over-protective and often - without realising - she is the one who makes SJ feel different.
This book provides a realistic insight into living with chronic allergies - the endless appointments and treatments and side-effects and the current of anxiety that runs alongside all of this. The authenticity arises from the authors own experiences - which are detailed at the end of the book.
I also loved that this own voices story is unique - I haven't come across any protagonists in middle grade fiction who have a chronic skin condition and life threatening allergies, so this book immediately caught my attention (I grew up with quite bad eczema and also have a nut allergy, so to some extent could relate to and empathise with SJ, as I suspect many young readers with varying degrees of these conditions will).
It's so important not only for young readers to see themselves and their own experiences mirrored in the books they read, but also to be exposed to new experiences and ideas, so that they might develop empathy and compassion towards others. This remarkable book shines a light on the experience of living with a chronic illness and all that this entails, helping to sow the seeds of empathy and understanding in young readers. This book would make a fabulous read aloud book in a group setting to facilitate conversation around themes in the book.
But above all - this is a well-written character-driven story that will keep readers from about Grade Six upwards engaged and invested.
Published by University of Queensland Press