Sunday, November 28, 2021

Violets Are Blue by Barbara Dee

One morning in February, 11-year-old Ren wakes up and discovers her dad has left the house and she doesn't hear from him until he lands in NYC, assuming Ren's mom has explained that they were getting divorced. Ren's mom Kelly, an ER nurse, doesn't really want to talk about the divorce, and escapes accepting it by sleeping a lot. Ren copes with these changes in her life watching online extreme makeup videos, especially those of Cat FX, an expert in special effects makeup. 

It turns out Ren's father has met someone who lives in Brooklyn and they are planning to get married in the summer. He invites Ren out for a visit and as much as she doesn't want to like Vanessa, she does. Vanessa is also pregnant, and somewhat into makeup because of her upcoming wedding. and the two have fun shopping for different kinds of cosmetics.

That summer, attending her father's summer wedding (and doing Vanessa's makeup for it), Ren's mom decides they need to move and start over, and since she is going to be attending a new school, Ren decides she want's to be called Wren from now on. At school, she immediately makes a friend named Poppy, who is so impressed with Wren's makeup skill, she talks her into trying out to do the makeup for the school play Wicked. Poppy was hoping for the part of Elphaba, but it goes to Avery, a not very friendly mean girl. Avery has a crush on a boy named Kai, but it seems that Kai is more attracted to Wren. 

Meanwhile, Kelly is sleeping more and more, and blaming it on her long days in the ER and the aching back and knees that come with job. Perhaps that's why she is so short tempered with Wren. Then there are all the pain pills in the medicine cabinet, and the lock Kelly has put on her bedroom door, keeping it locked at all time so Wren can't go in. Wren thinks there might be something wrong with her mom, but doesn't know what. Luckily, Kelly has made a friend in the ER named Krystal, and it starts to become clear that something is indeed wrong when Krystal begins checking up on her and Wren. It all comes to a head when Kelly doesn't show up for opening night of Wicked. All of this leads up to a crisis which Wren is way too young to handle by herself, but thankfully has Krystal and her dad's help.

This is another tough topic book by Barbara Dee who tackled sexual harassment in Maybe He Just Likes You and mental illness in My Life in the Fish Tank. Parents who divorce is also tough enough topic, as is moving to another town and school and starting over, but here Dee takes things one step further and explores the reasons for the broken trust between Wren and her mother, a trust that may never be healed completely. 

I have to confess that at first Wren's extreme makeup interest didn't appeal much to me, but when I thought why, I realized that the extreme makeup was a great metaphor for the secrets Wren and her mother hide from each other throughout the book. Makeup, after all, is used to hide flaws and make us look better than we might without it, in a sense presenting a false face to the world. Wren's having to hide her feelings about her dad and his new life forces her into being secretive about what happens on her visits to Brooklyn (and there are many) and the cosmetics Vanessa sends her, hiding them from Kelly. Meanwhile, Kelly hiding a host of her own problems behind a locked door which is just so telling. 

On a positive note, it was very nice to see a stepmom getting along so well with her husband's daughter from a previous marriage, and Wren acceptance of her and the twin babies she gives birth to is equally good to see. You don't often see that in middle grade novels. Vanessa is so open and accepting of Wren and Wren really needs that.  

Violets are Blue is an emotionally charged novel, and one that I highly recommend. You can also find a useful Reading Group Guide courtesy of the publisher Aladdin/Simon & Schuster HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an ARC gratefully received from Casey Blackwell at Media Masters Publicity
Be sure to check out the other Marvelous Middle Grade Monday offerings, 
now being carried on by Greg at Always in the Middle


  1. This sounds like a story that tackles a lot of issues that kids will relate to. It is good to see a story where the step-mom and step-daughter get along.

  2. This book is really emotionally charged with BIG issues, especially the drug addiction of a parent and mental health issues. But, there are kids out there that will be able to identify with Wren at some level and perhaps ask someone for help. Great review. I love realistic fiction!

  3. Sounds like a powerful story. Thanks for sharing your thoughts

  4. I also enjoyed this book. I'm afraid though the cover might chase away potential readers. I set out about 30 paperback arcs for trick or treaters to take. They all disappeared except for this one. The plot is a perfect way to explore the modern day issues. I hope it finds a wide audience.

  5. I've heard a ton of praise for this book, and it sounds like such a powerful read! I really appreciate your thorough review—the divorce, the issues with Wren's mom, and Wren's own personal life/the makeup all sound like they are well-explored. Thanks so much for the thoughtful review, Alex!

  6. It's nice to see stereotypes being broken in this book. Not all stepmothers are stepmonsters! Thanks for your thoughtful review. I will be looking for this book.


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