Review: Redwood and Ponytail by K.A. Holt

  • Genre: Middle grade contemporary, novel-in-verse
  • Publisher: Chronicle Books
  • Publication date: October 1, 2019

Told in verse in two voices, with a chorus of fellow students, this is a story of two girls, opposites in many ways, who are drawn to each other; Kate appears to be a stereotypical cheerleader with a sleek ponytail and a perfectly polished persona, Tam is tall, athletic and frequently mistaken for a boy, but their deepening friendship inevitably changes and reveals them in ways they did not anticipate.

I received an eARC in exchange for an honest review. Thanks to Netgalley and Chronicle Books.

Queer girls are really (finally!) having a moment in middle grade literature, so naturally I was looking forward to K.A. Holt’s new middle grade book, and I devoured it in just a couple of days before its release. I haven’t read any of Holt’s books before, but I’d heard they were popular with upper elementary and middle schoolers, and I really appreciated her op-ed about how schools tried to censor her sexuality during her visits.

Redwood and Ponytail, like the rest of Holt’s books I believe, is a novel-in-verse. This one is told in alternating perspectives of Kate and Tam, the real names of the titular characters (Kate has a perfect cheerleader ponytail; Tam is tall like a redwood), and sometimes their poems are side-by-side when they’re individually having a similar crisis. It’s an intensely personal style that still manages to flesh out the characters and the world around them. One way this is done is by a Greek chorus-style group of kids named different spellings of “Alex” that really emphasizes middle school politics and the sense of social anxiety both Kate and Tam have about how they’re perceived.

I loved the relationships Kate and Tam have with adults in their life. Adults are such a big part of adolescence and yet they can often be underwritten in books, but that isn’t the case here. Tam’s mom is goofy but loving, and she also has great models in her old lesbian neighbors (and their pets), but Kate’s got other challenges and lacks these models. Her mom has the perfect plan for Kate to be cheerleading captain, even though she starts to really enjoy being the mascot. Kate also has an adult sister who doesn’t have a great relationship with their mother, only heightening the mother’s expectations of Kate. But the sister, Jill, actually turns out to be another adult figure for Kate to confide in. And ultimately, importantly, there is no tragedy.

I really appreciate that both Kate and Tam get to make mistakes and be unlikable sometimes. They’re kids going through a lot–of course they will! And that just added to the depth and humanity of these characters, as well as suspense. Before everything can work out, they have to confront their own internal issues first. It’s an emotional roller coaster that’s steeped in honesty, not manipulation or plot twists.

I look forward to recommending this book to others and getting this and some of Holt’s other books for my future students if I teach middle school!

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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