Spotlight: In the Role of Brie Hutchens… by Nicole Melleby

I was fortunate enough to read this amazing new middle grade before publication a few months ago, back when it was slated to publish in April. Due to the pandemic, the release date was pushed back to June 30th, and I was invited to be on the blog tour–which I jumped. Here is the synopsis followed by my review (which, oops, was also on the last post on this blog…but I have been working on other things, and more importantly, reading and listening and sharing resources from Black antiracist educators as I prepare to enter the teaching profession. I encourage you to do the same.)

Introducing Brie Hutchens: soap opera super fan, aspiring actor, and so-so student at her small Catholic school. Brie has big plans for eighth grade. She’s going to be the star of the school play and convince her parents to let her go to the performing arts high school. But when Brie’s mom walks in on her accidentally looking at some possibly inappropriate photos of her favorite actress, Brie panics and blurts out that she’s been chosen to crown the Mary statue during her school’s May Crowning ceremony. Brie’s mom is distracted with pride—but Brie’s in big trouble: she has not been chosen. No one has. Worse, Brie has almost no chance to get the job, which always goes to a top student.

Desperate to make her lie become truth, Brie turns to Kennedy, the girl everyone expects to crown Mary. But sometimes just looking at Kennedy gives Brie butterflies. Juggling her confusing feelings with the rapidly approaching May Crowning, not to mention her hilarious non-star turn in the school play, Brie navigates truth and lies, expectations and identity, and how to—finally—make her mother really see her as she is.

In the Role of Brie Hutchens is another true middle school read, with eighth grader Brie lying to her mother to prevent her from seeing her laptop’s screen where she has Googled her favorite soap actress and found some NSFW pictures that she can’t stop looking at. Then the lies continue to to spiral as she tries to make what she told her mom a reality: crowning Mary at an important 8th grade ceremony at the end of the year, which leads her to seek help from her English teacher and the top student, a cute girl named Kennedy. But she can’t stop keeping THE secret of why she was looking at the pictures from her mom. Meanwhile, she wants to audition for a drama school, but her parents are strapped for cash since her dad was laid off, and the school play auditions don’t exactly go to plan.

This book stands out as one of the few I’ve seen to tackle religion not just in its trappings (Catholic school), but in its characters’ discussions of faith as well. Brie isn’t very attached, but she sees how important faith is to her mother, and has a great conversation about it with Kennedy. I also loved the integration of technology and how it helped Brie with her identity, a very realistic element for teens. In trying to find an audition monologue, she finds herself down a YouTube rabbit hole of soap opera coming-out scenes and compulsively makes a list. Brie also makes a great case for how she isn’t “too young to know” her sexuality, and how coming out isn’t a one-and-done deal, but something she’s going to have to do again and again throughout her life.

There are dramatic plot points–but more realistic and grounded than the soaps Brie loves–and during the last half I was compelled to keep reading to find out what would happen. Brie isn’t always the most likable person, but that makes her realistic. The ending is satisfying and sweet. I can’t wait to recommend this book to middle schoolers!

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