Jenna Cohen is a sister, a friend, a daughter, an outstanding high school student, a proudly Jewish young woman, and she has cerebral palsy. Although her condition limits her mobility and she suffers from occasional embarrassing spasms and blackouts, she does not let her illness define her. She is well-rounded, has a positive outlook and bright hopes for the future. That is, until the day she finds out that her medical condition was caused by the obstetrician who delivered her, and could possibly have been prevented by his more careful attention and focus. This discovery rocks Jenna’s world and causes her to take stock of her life anew. She feels betrayed by her parents for not sharing this information with her and she begins to question the methods and philosophies they cling to in having raised a child with her disabilities. She second-guesses many of their choices and begins to pursue legal emancipation in order to start making her own medical decisions.
Jenna withdraws from her challenging high school enrichment program with its full complement of AP classes and enrolls in a less intense academic program. She strives to integrate the new-found knowledge of her medical history into a revised perception of who she is and how she plans to conduct her life, weighing choices and facing their implications for her future. She has a wonderful support system in her two loving siblings, a young gay man named Ben who is her closest friend, and her uncle, a lawyer who is helping her prepare her emancipation case. She also realizes that her parents, who have made mistakes and continue to make them, love her deeply. Her struggles feel authentic and relatable and, as we read, we both admire and empathize with Jenna for her strengths as well as her challenges.
What is a page-turning young adult novel without its romantic interest? Jenna’s childhood crush has returned to their hometown and plot twists abound until Jenna succeeds in learning to stop hiding her real personality behind smokescreens and evasions and the two reach an understanding. The romantic storyline is touching and sweet but it does not overwhelm the book’s important focus on her determination to make her own choices, both medical and otherwise; the relationship supports this theme, simply adding another dimension to it.
The reader, while absorbed in an engaging story filled with light moments and humor as well as serious issues and controversy, learns much about legal emancipation, autonomy, and cerebral palsy; as well as about self-confidence and the ability to rebound even after serious errors of judgment. In spite of some minor questions of believability (would her uncle really pursue a legal case on her behalf against her parents and still have a loving relationship with her parents?) this is a worthwhile read.
Michal Hoschander Malen is the editor of Jewish Book Council’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A former librarian, she has lectured on topics relating to literacy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.