Gem & Dixie by Sara Zarr

Gem & Dixie by Sara Zarr

Overall Rating: 4.5/5

Quality of Prose: 4.5/5

Quality of Story: 4/5

Quality of Characters: 4/5

Ability to Make the Audience Think/Feel Differently: 4.5/5

How Long It Took Me to Finish: 1 day

A 1 Sentence Summary

When Gem’s absentee father returns and stashes a backpack full of drug money in the bedroom she shares with her sister, Dixie, Gem wants to take the money and run–finally escape the impoverished, neglected life she’s always led—but she finds it’s not so easy to leave her little sister behind.

My Favorite Quotes

“We lied to ourselves as much as anyone lied to us. You have to, when you’re a kid, if you want to get through it.”

“I wanted a home that felt like home should feel. Safe. A place you go when you know there won’t be any bad surprises and you can be even more who you are, not less.”

“I sensed something like that same freedom, a space opening up inside me where I’d only felt smallness before.”

“I don’t know how or why right then–but I saw. I could belong in the world. There was space for me.”

gem and dix

What I Loved About It

This book though.

I cried like 5 different times while reading it. (And I read the entire book on a plane so it was one of those embarrassing, public book cries.) And I didn’t cry because of some huge dramatic and sad death or loss or something like that. I cried at the real pictures of the human–and, more specifically, the teenaged–experience Zarr depicts in this book. The teenage characters and the trials and realizations and experiences they have in this book are so unbelievably real. And, as a high school teacher reading a book about neglected teen sister runaways, the realness of this book really effected me.

The relationship Zarr depicts between the two titular characters is particularly moving. Never before have I seen a more accurate portrayal of the bond between siblings; they love each other deeply and yet can hurt each other more than anyone else can. Zarr perfectly explained this bond when she wrote Gem saying about Dixie, “She’s the only one who knows…what it’s like to be us.” Shared childhood experiences–good or bad–bond siblings in a way nothing else can, and Zarr does such a good job depicting that.

She also does such a good job depicting Gem and Dixie’s neglectful parents. They are bad parents, involved far more in their own lives and the drugs and relationships they depend on than they are in their children’s lives. They don’t take care of their children. Gem has always taken care of Dixie, but no one has ever taken care of Gem. And even though their parents absolutely suck, there are some good memories Gem has with them.  They have some redeeming qualities; they are neither totally bad or totally good. They are not villains. In fact, there are no villains in this book. Dixie can be cruel at times, their parents can be uncaring and even hateful, but none of these characters are irredeemable. There’s no black or white in Gem & Dixie. Just real actual life. And that’s refreshing for a young adult book.

Another reason I loved this book was that Gem is such a relatable character for me. She is isolated and has been abandoned by everyone she’s ever loved. She is absolutely starved for love and attention. And she suffers from some serious social anxiety, which I (and many of my students) can wholeheartedly relate to. At one point Gem says, “I’d been in bed for an hour without falling asleep, going over my day and all the ways I had been weird at school.” Oh my goodness, no sentence has ever better explained my addled brain.

Despite all of the challenges Gem faces, she pushes through. She does what she needs to survive and to overcome and though all she wants is to flee from her own feelings of responsibility for her mom and sister, she postpones her plans to try and mend her broken relationship with her sister, to finally-even if only for one day-have that love and attention she’s always wanted. Man oh man the feels. So many feels.

What My Students Could Learn From It

Sara Zarr tells a heartbreaking story in Gem & Dixie. And yet it is—unfortunately—a commonplace one. As a teacher, this book especially moved me. How many of my students—how many of your students—have these same experiences? How many have neglectful parents? Parents who don’t make sure their kids have eaten? Who use them as pawns against their spouse or ex-spouse? Who have never taken them on a Ferris wheel or to the park? Who never buy them new clothes? Who don’t know where they are at any given time and who don’t ask? How many of my—and your—students don’t know how to ask for help? Don’t know who to ask for help? How many feel that their problems, their neglectful parents, aren’t bad enough to ask for help? How many feel they don’t deserve help? How many feel like they’re invisible—even to their own families? More than I, who came from a loving home with family vacations and rides on Ferris wheels and a home cooked meal every night, can ever imagine.

Clearly, this book is a must-read for teachers. But it’s also a must-read for our students. Many of my students could obviously relate to the plight of the main characters, and those that can’t could certainly learn a lot about problems that many less fortunate teens deal with.

Gem & Dixie has changed the way I view my students and will hopefully change the way I treat them and talk to them and teach them. And it’ll change you–and your students–too.

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