Review: Zero Tolerance by Claudia Mills
Published: June 18, 2013.
Published by: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR).
Source: Received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.
Seventh-grader Sierra Shepard has always been the perfect student, so when she sees that she accidentally brought her mother's lunch bag to school, including a paring knife, she immediately turns in the knife at the school office. Much to her surprise, her beloved principal places her in in-school suspension and sets a hearing for her expulsion, citing the school's ironclad no weapons policy. While there, Sierra spends time with Luke, a boy who's known as a troublemaker, and discovers that he's not the person she assumed he would be--and that the lines between good and bad aren't as clear as she once thought. Claudia Mills brings another compelling school story to life with Zero Tolerance.
As my new foray into middle grade fiction for the blog continues, I immediately picked this book out of the options Macmillan sent me because it looked like an example of the more intelligent and thoughtful side of MG lit. Thankfully, on this it absolutely delivered.
Zero Tolerance explores what it means to make a mistake and the ways in which different people deal with the consequences. I thought it was very smart to include some completely distinct and conflicting views on the situation Sierra finds herself in, including Sierra's father, her mother, the school principal and staff, some of the other students, and Sierra herself. Each character provides a slightly different opinion on how the situation should be dealt with and it was great watching Sierra try to understand and deal with each one.
While tackling the major difficult (and rather unusual) situation at hand, Mills also manages to weave in the kind of middle school troubles that almost everyone experiences. She explores friendships well with Sierra's best friends and helps to show the difference between a healthy friendship, which Sierra has with Em, and an occasionally toxic friendship, which Sierra has with Celeste. The friendship with Celeste was a great example for young readers of how sometimes you need to stand up for yourself, even against someone you consider your friend. Mills also handles the life-changing (and life-dominating) experience of first attraction with a respectful hand, because for young readers, this can be a huge event in their lives. Finally, she shows through Sierra's parents' relationship how people learn to deal with differences and how, with respect and understanding, love isn't as doomed as it may seem these days.
I really appreciated Mills' writing style in this one. It is clear that she knows her audience and how to write for them because while this is definitely a "thinking" book, I don't think it would go over the heads of the kinds of readers who would be interested in the storyline. Mills occasionally uses "smart words" or terms that the reader might not understand, but also takes the time to explain them in a way that is not condescending or talking down. I appreciated this and think it is a great way to help middle grade readers expand their vocabulary without forcing it on them.
With the more intelligent and focused storyline came a pace that could very well lose some readers who love action packed adventure books. This is definitely not one of those books, so I wouldn't recommend it for a reader who bores easily. I would say this is much more geared towards a reader who really cares about average people and their plights, one who doesn't always need something extraordinary to happen to enjoy a book, and maybe one who has a genuine interest in school. For readers like that who don't mind a pace that doesn't rush along, this really is a well crafted and thoughtful novel that might get a young reader thinking about the many issues brought up and how they would deal with some of the situations Sierra is placed in.
I give this slower paced but smart MG read 4 stars!