Corinna lets us in on some pretty personal stuff, including her grief and anxiety about her bodily changes (or lack thereof). She tells us, "My world is upside down and inside out and scrambled like mush and it's really horrible, and I feel like I have this great, big, giant emptiness inside of me," (10.1) and, "I've been feeling more and more self-conscious about being flat when all my friends are filling out and moving from exercise bras to real bras" (21.44). If this isn't intimate, then we don't know what is—she's practically whispering her secrets into our ears.
Corinna talks to us like we're close friends, part of her inner circle. We might not know what it's like to lose our mom, but we know what it's like to be confused by puberty. We know what it's like to wait for adult stuff, like your first kiss, and wonder if it's ever going to happen. And as we watch Corinna try to sort it all out—all while missing her mom—her tone makes it clear that for every coming-of-age victory she experiences, there's always a twinge of sadness, too.
Actually, this is a middle-grade novel, but that's close enough to young adult—it's aimed at tweens and younger teens, and told by an eighth grader. As for the coming-of-age thing, we see Corinna get her first bra, wait anxiously for her period, and experience her first kiss—all without her mom's support. Plus, at the end of the book, she starts high school. Corinna's learning what it means to be a teenager and how to hack it on her own without her mom, and we're along for the ride as she finds her footing and starts to come into her new normal.
This one's easy: Corinna's life would still be normal if only her mother hadn't died—so the book is called If Only.
Lots of things would be different if only Sophie were still around: She'd still be best friends with Joci, she'd still be able to go to sleepovers, she'd still have someone to make her lunch, she'd still go to the dentist and pediatrician, and she might even have some new, cute clothes for her eighth grade year. She'd also have someone to ask about the changes in her body (or lack thereof) and explain what's up with boys. Most of all, though, she wouldn't be sad all the time… if only she still had a mom.
If Only begins with Corinna starting eighth grade and ends with her starting ninth. As it ends, it's the first day of Corinna attending the school where her dad teaches, and she's excited to see Clare and Joci again. Her dad's still sad, but he seems more like himself these days, and they've even been laughing occasionally. He's also (finally) learning to cook, and he might be even better at it than her mom—they've been having some decent dinners that don't come out of a can.
Of course, everything's not all sunshine and fluffy bunnies and tasty, moist chicken. Corinna's paranoid that she and Joci will have another falling out, which would mean losing Joci's mom. She also worries that her dad will start dating again—specifically, that he'll start dating her mom's best friend, Deborah. There's a lot of stuff she's still not ready to deal with, but at least now she thinks she and her dad are going to be okay. Heck, she even thinks she catches her dad smiling. Yay.
Most of If Only takes place in Bethesda, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC. The author's from DC, so she's writing what she knows, but with the exception of a mention of Georgetown Cupcake, location doesn't play a huge role in the story. Which is kind of the point: Corinna could be any kid, anywhere, which allows readers to relate.
When Corinna and her dad visit Japan, though, location becomes more important. Here they bond over being outsiders. It's interesting because they've sort of been outsiders back in DC this entire time—people aren't sure how to engage them in their grief—but by geographically becoming outsiders, Corinna and her dad are finally able to come together over this status. The Japan section is brief, but Corinna and her dad return home united. Yay.
If Only is a middle-grade novel aimed at the widest possible audience, from grieving kids to the grown-ups who love them. The language is simple and direct—after all, if your brain is muddled from being in survival mode, you need something easy to read. This is an eighth-grader's chronicle of her life in the year after her mom dies, told in an authentic eighth-grader's voice. It feels a lot like reading someone's diary when you spend the night at her house and she falls asleep first… not that you would ever do that, of course.
If you're thirteen-years-old and someone you know has just died, you don't need poetry; you need a book that speaks your language. Geithner's a therapist, and she knows how kids really talk. If Only isn't the next Great American Novel—it's a Great American Guidebook. The subject matter is difficult, but the writing isn't.
Here's an example of Geithner's style:
"Hey, Corinna," Joci says cheerfully. "How ya doin'?"
"Hi, Joss. Hi guys."
"Hey, Corinna," Eliana chimes in. "So...what'd you bring for lunch?" Eliana asks with a big smile. (3.40-42)
The conversation isn't complicated, and it isn't poetic. That's okay—Geithner's going for conversational and relatable, rather than beautiful and profound. Not every story has to sound like Shakespeare in order to pull readers into the experiences it expresses.
One of the big fears for the kids in Ms. DuBoise's grief group is that they'll forget the sound of their parents' voices. When asked if the second and third year after her dad's death have been easier than the first, Clare admits she can't remember his voice anymore; she says, "I think forgetting is worse than remembering" (25.11). Corinna knows exactly how she feels. She tells us:
In my head, I start listing all the ways I can try to remember Mom, especially her voice. I really hope I don't forget Mom's voice. (25.12)
For most of the book, Corinna still has Sophie's voice mail, and she calls it when she needs to talk, like when she realizes Joci may have stolen her bracelet. Her mom may not be around, but at least Corinna can hear it during some of her harder days. Another time Corinna really needs to hear her mom's voice is the night of her first school dance when she realizes she's too sad to dance with anyone. But when she gets home and rings Sophie's digits, she gets a message that says the number is no longer in service. Here's the super-sad passage:
Dad's eyes get teary as he tells me, "I waited a long time because it felt so hard, but I couldn't keep paying fifty dollars a month forever."
"Dad, her voice. Now her voice is gone." (41.40)
Oh man—it's like losing another piece of her mom. Super sad, right? And such a terrible surprise, just like losing her mom in the first place.
When Corinna deletes Sophie's number from her phone, it's like she's admitting her mom is really gone. But is forgetting really harder than remembering? No matter how much you remember, you can't bring the person back. We're all for cell phone companies offering free memorial voice mailboxes for life, but until that happens, allowing voices to fade to memories will be part of letting go.
Faced with a closet full of Sophie's clothes, Corinna has to make a decision: donate them, throw them away, or get her craft on. When she takes a sewing class her eighth grade year, she's got no time for boring old aprons—girlfriend dives right in and makes a quilt. No pressure, everybody else dabbling in home economics.
Granted, it's not easy to cut up her mother's stuff. "Actually cutting the fabric is incredibly hard," Corinna says of slicing into Sophie's silk scarf, "but not because I'm holding the scissors wrong. Slicing through her clothes […] it's almost like cutting a person's skin" (23.30). Just as Sophie's body was transformed into ashes that now sit on the mantel, her clothing is transformed into a symbol of her body—and while this makes cutting difficult, it also creates something Corinna can keep with her for life.
Making the quilt is a way of acknowledging Sophie at school, where Corinna has previously spent all her time trying not to cry. Showing everyone else that her mom existed is a kind of therapy, especially in a class in which Billy Bradley says, "[…] what are you doing with all those rags? […] Can't you afford any new material?" (26.4-6). Billy's an idiot, obviously, but by using Sophie's clothes for her project, Corinna's bucking the unspoken junior-high rule that you must be just like everyone else to be normal—Corinna is being fully herself instead.
Additionally, in making the quilt Corinna's channeling Sophie's love of crafts, making this blanket a way of honoring her on a number of levels as she stitches her memories together into a patchwork that makes some sort of sense.
Who else is going to tell the intimate story of a character's loss besides the character herself? We're right there with Corinna as she relates the year after her mom's death. We get to read her English essay, she lets us see into her mom's diary, and we experience her surprise when she learns that Sophie's parents used a sperm donor to conceive her. Through allowing the narrator to speak directly to the reader, Geithner helps readers relate, and if you're a kid going through your own loss, you definitely need someone who gets you.
It's safe to say Corinna Burdette's life stinks. As if eighth grade isn't already difficult enough, Corinna's mom dies of cancer two weeks before school starts. Her dad's in a fog, and her best friend Joci has been MIA since the funeral, and as school begins, Corinna's sure she's going to be either made fun of, or turned into the "class pity project." After all, how could anyone possibly relate to her life right now? Everyone she knows still has a mom.
Corinna still needs Joci in her life, but Joci's being a pretty lousy friend—she says some really insensitive stuff, like that if her mom died, she'd kill herself. And when she invites Corinna over to her house one day, Corinna sees a bracelet in Joci's room identical to one she lost. Huh. Plus, Joci won't stop complaining about her mom at the lunch table. Joci is not nailing this whole Corinna's-mom-died situation.
When Corinna meets Clare, though, she finally has a friend to whom she can relate, since Clare's dad died. It isn't just smooth sailing from here, however, since Joci gets jealous and demands to know why Corinna and Clare are spending so much time together.
After a year of feeling like the most abnormal girl on the planet, Corinna's crush, Alex, pays attention to her. Finally having gotten somewhat of a clue, her dad takes her to The Gap, where she gets a cute outfit to wear to the school dance. And then—as if this all weren't good enough—Corinna and Alex do that junior-high face-bumping thing that passes for kissing. Our girl finally comes out of the grief pit, a little, for an evening. Yay. This is definitely a turning point.
The Burdettes were planning a trip to Japan before Sophie got sick, and Corinna's grandparents offer to pay for Corinna and her dad to still go. They travel to Tokyo, where they meet Sophie's former host parents, the Ishibashis, and then it's off to Kyoto, where they meet the Ishibashis' daughter, Aiko, who introduces them to Obon, a festival to honor the dead. She teaches Corinna how the Japanese summon their ancestors at a shrine, and Corinna takes some incense back to America to make a shrine to Sophie.
Corinna and her dad share some good times together during the trip, finally laughing together again. What else are you going to do when you flood the Ishibashis' bathroom with their toilet/bidet?
A year has passed since Sophie's death, and it's time to start ninth grade. Corinna and her dad are beginning to joke around again, and he's even learning to cook. She and Joci have patched things up, and Corinna's looking forward to being friends this year—as her dad drops her off at school, she thinks she sees him smile, which makes her think they might actually return to something resembling normal.