Messner’s latest is a #MeToo book for the younger crowd
“Chirp,” the latest work by North Country author Kate Messner, is a children’s chapter book that explores the topic of sexual harassment in an age-appropriate way. It’s relatively short, yet packed with timely themes layered within engaging story lines.
The main character, Mia, moves from Boston to Burlington, Vermont, one summer. The move is a homecoming of sorts. Mia left Burlington after third grade when her parents landed new jobs; the family moves back because Mia’s paternal grandmother suffered a mild stroke over the winter.
The grandmother is an important part of the story and busts up stereotypes about the elderly. She’s a former University of Vermont professor of entomology and operates a cricket farm in her retirement years. She’s a savvy, independent businesswoman intent on rebounding from the stroke by staying physically active and connected to the community. She bristles at her son and daughter-in-law’s attempts to get her to step away from the business. The crickets are considered “superfood,” and Messner explores the concept of entomophagy with readers. Mia extolls the virtues of roasted crickets, enhanced with barbecue and other flavors, to reluctant customers.
Over the course of the summer, Mia helps out at the cricket farm, and readers learn along with her about the care and feeding of the tiny creatures. Nothing is routine, though, as Mia and her grandmother suspect sabotage when they experience a series of setbacks. That particular plot line keeps readers in suspense and comes together successfully by the end of the book.
Mia’s parents insist she participate in at least two day camps in addition to helping out at the farm: one for her body and one for her brain. The first is a warrior camp, a kid-version of a Tough Mudder or American Ninja Warrior competition. The warrior camp initiatives lend themselves well to metaphor — physical practice and positive self-talk can go a long way when you’re trying to scale a wall, climb a rope, or propel yourself to speak up about something painful. The other camp focuses on helping young entrepreneurs launch their original ideas. Messner uses this camp as a way to introduce readers to gender inequality in the tech and business worlds. Through these two programs Mia’s friendships blossom, adventures abound, and the backstory about gymnastics as an emotional trigger emerges.
In my early years as a professional counselor, I worked with both children and adults who’d experienced sexual assault. Messner’s portrayal of Mia’s struggles and resilience was spot-on. It was also a welcome relief to hear adult characters explaining to Mia that pursuing help from a mental health professional or school counselor is a reasonable and appropriate step in the face of difficulty. Messner reinforces the credibility of counseling with the placement of such dialogue.
“Chirp” is just the right blend of mystery, empowerment and renewal for young readers and their families. Hard-copy and audiobook versions of the title are available through the Clinton-Essex-Franklin Library System.
Lauren McGovern is an English and history teacher at North Country School in Lake Placid.