Tracie Vaughn Zimmer’s 2007 middle grade novel Reaching for Sun tells the story—through verse—of a year in the life of Josie Wyatt, a seventh grader with cerebral palsy. The structure and tone of the novel are very reminiscent of Sharon Creech, particularly the poignant Heartbeat, and my love for Creech’s verse may have made me overly critical of Zimmer’s similar style. Zimmer creates a young narrator whose voice is more refined and poetic than is believable of the typical thirteen-year-old, and I sometimes found myself pulled out of the story.
The overall theme of plants growing and reaching for sun has been done again and again. And this novel drives that theme home in every possible way. The title, the cover (a girl with a daisy crown), the illustrations (a flower blooming, flipbook-style), and the gardening grandmother are all so literally and figuratively about growth and blossoming that I found it a little tough to take. But if I were in the target demographic, aged ten to thirteen, I’d enjoy this book enough that perhaps I wouldn’t mind its heavy-handed metaphors.
Josie herself is very relatable. She lives with spasticity on her left side and doesn’t wear her splint or do her exercises at home as often as she should. She waits until the halls are empty to go to occupational therapy at school to avoid the taunts of other students. She feels nagged by her mother, helps her grandmother garden, and finds a friendliness and kinship with her grandmother’s friends at Lazy Acres, to whom they bring flowers and goodies. Then she meets Jordan, who dresses like a nerd and conducts science experiments and wants to learn all about the insects and plants in Josie’s garden. Jordan doesn’t mind Josie’s speech or gait; he’s impressed by her knowledge of flowers, and soon they’re inseparable.
As far as the portrayal of the disability itself, those of us with spastic CP will find truth here:
But my thumb will always be pasted to my palm,
and my left wrist and shoulder
by an invisible rubber band
called cerebral palsy.
Later, a more graphic explanation of CP: “a vein pops in the brain and ruins the part where it spills.”
While I felt a connection with these two lines, I can say that I wanted more about what it was like for Josie to live with CP. She does things more slowly than her peers and uses her good hand. But when she has a fight with her mother and is grounded and given long lists of chores, including weeding and scrubbing under sinks and behind the refrigerator, we don’t experience any of her struggles through these very physical tasks. Josie feels tired, as anyone would, but how is it different for her to clean the house from top to bottom and take care of the yard, too? Does she get frustrated or lose her balance?
A realistic depiction of cerebral palsy that would satisfy every reader is clearly not possible, I grant. Josie’s CP is mild, and she’s a capable character, climbing on stepladders and crocheting mittens. It’s awesome to see a character with a disability be physically capable. But we also don’t want to see a disability glossed over, put in place as the character’s trait with which to struggle, but not consistently present throughout the plot. Though I would have liked more disability details woven into the story, I relate to and applaud the author’s portrayal of cerebral palsy overall.
Yes, Reaching for Sun chooses an oft-used theme and has some imperfections, but other elements make for a positive reading experience in the end. The relationships, for example, between Josie and her mom and grandmother, between the mother and grandmother themselves, and between Jordan and Josie are both believable and sweet. Further, each supporting character is three-dimensional, with an identity and storyline beyond Josie, making this a novel about more than just a girl with a disability. I recommend this book for readers ten and up.