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From the Stacks: The price of fitting in

by Angie Bayne | June 12, 2022 at 3:55 a.m.


The end of everything starts quietly and with a buzz you can barely hear. But it doesn't end that way, not even close. The end starts when Mallory finds out Jennifer Chan has run away. Mallory knew it had to be related to the incident -- the incident she doesn't like thinking about. So Mallory sets out to find Jennifer Chan and along the way finds herself.

Mallory knows the rules for how middle school works: wear the right clothes, say the right things and know your place. Most of all do not upset the status quo. Mallory finally fits in with her best friends Reagan and Tess even if she isn't always comfortable with the role she is playing. Then Jennifer Chan moves in across the street. Jennifer does not fit in; she does not stay small. She is big with big ideas that she is not afraid to share.

When Jennifer runs away, Mallory knows she has to be the one to find her. Reagan and Tess were also involved in the incident, so they are not the ones she turns to for help. Instead, she turns to old friends Kath and Ingrid. With the help of Jennifer's journals, they look for clues to lead them to her.

As the investigation progresses, Mallory does some soul searching about the part she played in Jennifer's disappearance. Upon her arrival in town, Mallory befriended Jennifer, but once school started, things changed. There is a hierarchy in middle school and Mallory knows her place. Jennifer did not fit into that hierarchy and threatened to upend the social order. Mallory's friend Raegan decides Jennifer needs to learn her place, thus leading to the incident Mallory took part in. The incident that led to Mallory, Raegan and Tess confronting Jennifer in a bathroom and humiliating her, leading her to run away.

We never think of ourselves as the bully in the story, which is what makes this novel so interesting. While Mallory doesn't intend to bully Jennifer, she goes along with Raegan and Tess when they decide to teach her a lesson. Mallory is so afraid of losing her place in the social order that she is willing to do something she knows is wrong.

Tae Keller talks about her own experience being bullied in the afterword of this book and why she decided to write the story from the perspective of the person doing the bullying instead of the person being bullied. What we learn from this story is to Mallory, the incident wasn't personal to Jennifer, it was more about Mallory in that moment. It was about how Mallory felt about being kept small and in her place and the fact that Jennifer didn't seem to feel the same way.

We often celebrate what makes us unique as adults, but sometimes for children, it is all about what makes you fit in. Being different makes you stand out, and in a conforming place like middle schoo, even the smallest differences can make you a target for those enforcing the status quo. The Jennifers of the world are the ones we will remember when we look back on our history, but they are also the ones who sometimes struggle with fitting in.

The end may have started with a quiet buzz, but it ended with true friendship, forgiveness and a knowledge that who you are and what you believe is OK even if you don't fit in. "Jennifer Chan is Not Alone" is a great lesson on the price you can pay when you try to be someone you are not -- and how freeing it can be to be yourself.

Angie Bayne is the assistant director of Public Services at Missouri River Regional Library.


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