MG at Heart Book Club’s Writer’s Toolbox: What the First Chapters of The Benefits of Being an Octopus and Everlasting Nora Have in Common

This month, the Middle Grade at Heart team is trying something new: our first ever book club double-feature, spotlighting The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden and Everlasting Nora by Marie Miranda Cruz!

We love how both of these authors explore the theme of poverty in such an authentic, unflinching way. We also love how they have both crafted brave, resilient main characters, and how their books depict difficult situations while offering lots of hope and empowerment for young readers.

These are the best kinds of window and mirror books. For readers who have never dealt with poverty, The Benefits of Being an Octopus and Everlasting Nora will help them develop compassion and understanding. And those who have lived in poverty will feel seen and validated.

Both books have terrific first chapters that introduce readers to these two strong, memorable main charactersZoey and Nora. And an interesting parallel is that both first chapters reveal the characters’ relationships to school. Let’s take a closer look at how both books touch on the characters’ experiences with something very relatable: their education.

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In The Benefits of Being an Octopus, Zoey has a very rare, very short-lived moment of quiet in her mom’s boyfriend’s trailer, where she lives with her mom and younger siblings. She thinks she might have a chance to work on her debate packet and explains why that would be unusual:

I’m not a kid who does homework. And I definitely don’t do big projects, which usually require glitter and markers and poster board and all sorts of things. None of which I have. Plus, last year in sixth grade, when I actually turned in a poster project, Kaylee Vine announced to the whole class, “Everyone! Alert the authorities! Zoey Albro turned in a project. The world must be ending.” Then she made that ahgn ahgn ahgn sound like a fire drill, and did it every time she passed me in the hall for the whole next week.

But this project doesn’t need any glitter. And everyone else won’t have fancy poster boards with foam letters that make my flimsy piece of newsprint that the teacher gave me look like gray toilet paper. All I need is to know something—and I do.

And maybe, just maybe, if I do this—and if I can rock it—all the other kids will have their minds blown, and it’ll be completely satisfying to watch. “Who would have guessed,” they’ll say, “that Zoey knew so much cool stuff? I had no idea! I thought I knew who she was, but clearly I didn’t at all.” Maybe Kaylee Vine would even stop holding her nose and switching seats on the bus to get away from me.

This passage is powerful for a few reasons. First, it’s a bit surprising. From the first page, Zoey comes across as extremely smart, capable, and responsible. So that sentence, “I’m not a kid who does homework” will catch some readers off-guard. It might make readers pause and ask, “Wait a minute. Why not?” And then, immediately, Zoey’s narration reveals that there are often financial barriers to completing projectsbarriers some kids will recognize and other kids (and adults) might have to stop to consider for the first time.

The passage also establishes Zoey as a character we can’t help but root for. Zoey reveals some upsetting thingsKaylee Vine’s cruelty and the fact that other kids underestimate herbut she doesn’t pity herself. She has a fire inside her and remains determined and hopeful that she can make things better. That makes her very easy to love and cheer on.

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Now let’s turn to Everlasting Nora. On the first pages of the book, Nora reveals that she does not have a traditional home—instead, she and her mom, along with several other people, live in their families’ grave houses in a cemetery in the Philippines. The first paragraphs of the book are quite poignant, revealing Nora’s nostalgia for the kind of home she used to have. But despite Nora’s sorrows, she’s also very joyful. Her capacity for joy comes across when she spots a teacher who sometimes comes to the cemetery:

Up ahead, I saw Efren Pena and his pushcart classroom on the corner. He waved a book in the air when he saw me. A wide smile dimpled his cheek. He called out, “Nora, join us! We’re doing math today.”

I waved back a him. A surge of excitement filled me. […] Working on math would be fun. Papa had always said I was good with numbers.”

Like Zoey, Nora is not defeated; she has a great deal of passion and truly wants to learn. But also like Zoey, Nora has many responsibilities and worries that get in the way of her schooling. In fact, she isn’t able to go to school at all. After Nora sees Efren Pena, she decides she can join the math lesson for a bit. She thinks to herself, “Yes, it would be nice to sit a while and pretend I was back in school.” This is such a powerful line. Nora matter-of-factly shares that school work is a relaxing break from the type of work she usually has to do. Readers who manage challenging circumstances at home will likely relate to this sentiment. Meanwhile, others who haven’t felt this way will understand a lot about Nora’s life from the fact that she considers schoolwork a break. Readers also get to see how determined Nora is when she reflects on her desire to be back in school:

I missed going to a real school. I missed the smell of chalk. Most of all, I missed my best friend. If I saved enough money I could buy a couple of secondhand uniforms, some notebooks, and pencils. I would go back to school next year. I’d have to repeat sixth grade, but that was okay.

For some readers, school might be something they take for granted or even dislike, but school is something Nora longs for. Readers who think of school as an obligation will be very moved by Nora’s desire to have the opportunity to go back. And we see here in this passage that, like Zoey, Nora is resilient and full of hope that she can make things bettertraits that make her an endearing and admirable character.

Perhaps it’s a coincidence that both books address the protagonists’ complicated relationships with education in the first chapter. But even if it is, we can learn a lot from the way Ann Braden and Marie Miranda Cruz do this. They both use something that almost all readers have experience with as a touchstone to reveal a lot about where their characters are coming from. This choice helps some readers quickly identify with Zoey and Nora, and it helps others to understand and feel compassion for them.

What other parallels can you spot between these two books? We hope you’ll join us this month to read The Benefits of Being an Octopus and Everlasting Nora…or to read one of them, if you’ve already read the other. Our newsletter will go out on Monday, April 22nd, and our #mgbookclub Twitter chat will be at 8pm EST on Tuesday, April 30th. We hope you can discuss these books and their similarities and differences with us then!

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