Monday, December 29, 2014

The Swap by Megan Shull

If you like the concept of comedic body switches a la Freaky Friday, then it's time for you to read Megan Shull's novel The Swap.

Note that I said comedic "body switches" as opposed to horror-movie-style body swaps - those are invasive and terrifying, whereas The Swap is a smart and sensitive look at what it would be like for two middle school students of opposite genders to switch places.

When an encounter at school causes them to unwillingly swap bodies, thirteen-year-old Jack and twelve-year-old Ellie have to figure out a way to deal with their very different bodies, families, friends, and afterschool obligations until they can swap back. Before this unexpected event, the kids weren't friends. They go to the same school, so they vaguely knew each other - with Ellie being more aware of Jack than vice-versa - but they are a grade apart and don't have any classes or activities in common. By the time the book is over, though, there's no way they could call themselves strangers anymore.

This story is about more than temporarily being in someone else's body - it's about sharing someone else's life. The decisions the protagonists make and the actions they take while walking in each other's shoes (including Ellie's soccer cleats and Jack's hockey skates) affect them both. Seeing the world through new eyes changes how they see others and how they see themselves.

And back to the body sharing: where some sitcoms, books, or movies might play awkward moments in the locker room and in the bathroom as silly and/or gross jokes, these kids are truly uncomfortable at those times, and ultimately very respectful.

You could say that the two parental figures in the book are both devoted to their children, but they are definitely at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. Ellie's mother, a divorced single parent and yoga instructor, is upbeat and sunny. Jack's stern father, a widower, is very strict with his four sons. Very strict. Think Captain Von Trapp. He oversees their daily fitness routine and year-round hockey training and makes them call him "sir." Ellie's mom wishes her daughter would be more open with her, while Jack's militaristic dad doesn't do heart-to-heart chats.

Jack has a whole bunch of buddies and gets along very well with his brothers. Meanwhile, only child Ellie feels like she doesn't have a friend in the world. Sassy, her best friend since kindergarten, has found a new best friend and now finds it fun to say mean things to Ellie (and Jack-as-Ellie) at school, on the soccer field, and at a memorable sleepover. Anyone who has had a friend turn on them, especially in middle school, will relate to that heartache. Friendship break-ups can hurt just as much as romantic ones. Not all friends make up; not all friends should. Kids and adults alike should keep this in mind: If someone is being mean to you and repeatedly putting you down, that person is not a true friend.

Both Ellie and Jack are healthy and athletic, which is really cool. It also comes in handy when they have attend each other's practices and tryouts. I also appreciated that the sports storylines didn't culminate in either character winning the big game or being chosen MVP; instead, it was about personal successes, about what the work taught them about themselves and how it pushed them outside of their comfort zones. There was also a neat sporty bit towards the end of the book that I wasn't expecting, and I liked a lot.

I've read a lot of books with dual narratives, and The Swap is a solid example of a story that both needs and benefits from two narrators who offer honest first-person thoughts. Without making them polar opposites, Shull has her characters speak and react differently, with some overlap - it's fun when they start realizing that they've picked up each other's lingo. The narrating duties flip back and forth in alternating chapters, and the story is easy to follow. The Swap considers the different ways we treat girls and boys, the different things we expect of our sons and daughters, and it's a great take on upper middle school life, a time that a lot of TV shows glaze over, jumping from little-kid-dom right into the teen age rather than dealing with the simultaneous horrors and happiness of those in-between wonder years.

For those of who you have yet to read the original novel Freaky Friday by Mary Rodgers, do yourself a favor and pick up that book at the same time you pick up The Swap. Also grab Megan Shull's previous releases, including Amazing Grace.


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