Tae Keller’s Jennifer Chan is Not Alone is an engrossing and relatable novel for middle grade and adult readers alike. Insightful and incisive, Jennifer Chan is Not Alone tackles crucial topics with authenticity and vulnerability.
Mallory has survived middle school–so far– because her best friend Reagan has taught her how to fit in. Mallory’s world revolves around what she thinks other people think about her, and so her every action and word is measured and weighed against the potential social repercussions. When new girl Jennifer Chan moves in across the street from her, Mallory is shocked to discover that Jennifer doesn’t play by the same rules as Mallory; in fact, she doesn’t play by any rules at all. Jennifer is wholly, authentically herself. And that self believes aliens are real and that she, Jennifer Chan, is going to find them. Mallory feels pulled between her familiar world and the unknown one that friendship with Jennifer would unlock. But when Jennifer Chan goes missing, Mallory blames herself, and decides its up to her to find Jennifer.
The novel jumps between two times, Then and Now. This not only in sets the stakes from page one, but also provides insight into why Mallory feels responsible. Though the plot of Jennifer’s disappearance is intense on its own, the reason why she’s missing is just as important.
I fully expected the title character to be the main character, but she’s not. Instead of sharing Jennifer’s thoughts, the story is told through Mallory’s eyes. Mallory, the could have been friend that was party to the Incident that caused Jennifer to go missing. Mallory, who can’t not abide by societal expectations. Mallory, who is suddenly asking herself if she is the bad guy in this story.
Keller expertly and carefully shows how bullying affects all involved, with those so easily painted as villains taking center stage. By giving such incisive insight into the mind of a bully, Keller humanizes each person involved in hurting Jennifer Chan. From the stereotypical popular guy to the queen bee to the girls who could have befriended her but didn’t out of self-preservation, every character is presented as flawed but not evil. Especially with bullying stories, it can be easy to choose a villain and paint them as irredeemable. But these are still children, and their actions are a direct result of their own hurt. That isn’t meant to excuse or pardon any hurtful behavior, but rather to show how poor decisions can pile up to create a much larger problem.
Keller achieves this feat by having each character intricately well developed. It is through slowly revealing information about each character and their interactions with Jennifer that the reader sees how even small actions can have a ripple effect, for better or worse.
Keller chooses authenticity and vulnerability at every step, including in the author’s note. Some of the bullying moments are pulled from Keller’s personal experience being bullied in middle school. This makes the humanity found in each character, particularly the bullies, even more admirable.
The subject matter of this novel was heavier than I expected, but it doesn’t feel heavy to read. It’s engrossing and engaging; I had a hard time putting it down. The world is so well built that every time I was interrupted while reading, I felt like I was coming up from underwater. There are touching moments, funny moments, and so many times when you just feel viscerally pulled back to middle school.
Jennifer Chan is Not Alone is incredible from start to finish, and is one I won’t soon forget. This thought-provoking book is a unique blend of mystery, sci-fi, and social commentary. This is perfect for fans of Jerry Spinelli’s Star Girl and Ali Benjamin’s The Thing About Jellyfish.
Jennifer Chan is Not Alone is available now. Thank you to Tae Keller, Random House Children’s, and NetGalley for an E-ARC such that I could share my honest opinions.
You can purchase Jennifer Chan is Not Alone here from Bookshop.org and here from Amazon. Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and Amazon. I will earn a commission (at no extra cost to you) if you click through and make a purchase.