Sidetracked – by Diana Harmon Asher
Amulet Books (Abrams), 2017
When we meet Joseph Friedman, he is caught in the agony of a middle-school soccer game, targeted by one of the more memorable bullies in contemporary middle-grade literature. The atmosphere of crude physicality and cruelty thinly disguised as competition will be remembered by anyone who hasn’t blocked out all childhood memories. But Joseph is not an object of pity in this funny and empathic story; his intelligence and preternatural insight make him stand out from other characters in similar situations. Yes, he struggles with ADD and “learning difficulties,” a category which, he points out, seems “a little less tragic” than the previous term, “learning disabilities.” Joseph is a kid who sometimes has difficulty interpreting the codes of social interaction, and who can blame him? Many of them are revealed to be ridiculous or at least confusing. From the first chapter, it is clear that Joseph is not a symbol, and this is not merely an uplifting story about finding your inner strength. Like Joseph, readers will not be sidetracked.
Diana Harmon Asher’s novel is not tragic, nor even particularly dark. Instead, it is realistic about the ways in which a sensitive kid who faces some daunting problems can grow emotionally. Unlike some others, both in life and literature, he has supportive parents, and the bonus of a loving live-in grandfather. In school, the obtuse Coach De Salvo directs Joseph not to run away from the ball, hardly words to live by. But his wonderful resource room teacher and cross-country coach, Mrs. T. (Teitelbaum), is a portrait of compassion. She knows the difference between seeking an elusive and worthless “personal best,” instead emphasizing the value of a “personal record.” She is honest about her students’ limitations, but knows they will not be defined by them. He also has the support of the school librarian, Mrs. Fishbein, a lovable eccentric who opposed the replacement of the card catalogue by a computer system, “kicking and screaming.”
Then there is his new friend, Heather, a gifted athlete and a real mentsch, the first peer to truly see Joseph for who he is. He is a boy who even intuits that sometimes being good at something might be harder than being bad at it, particularly if one is a girl. He’s the kid who ironically refers to an item on his “To Do list,” while admitting, “…like I even have a To Do list.” And he worries incessantly, even composing a meta-list of the most complete guidelines for this activity. (“I call it the Friedman Law of Worry. There will always be something you don’t think of. And that’s what will get you.”) Joseph, for all his phobias and intense anxieties, is not a caricature. He is a sweet and compelling boy who confronts the darkness and creates some light.
Sidetracked features an engrossing plot and believable characters. No one is perfect and no one is beyond redemption, or, if he is, his pettiness will ultimately be revealed. Girls and boys acknowledge gender roles but may transcend them. Lonely old people can find companionship. And a boy with many fears but a range of strategies for confronting them will reach the finish line.