This new middle-grade novel by Carolyn Mackler is engaging, endearing, and informative. NOT IF I CAN HELP IT follows Willa, a 5th grader with Sensory Processing Disorder, as her comfortable and just-about-manageable world abruptly turns upside-down. The news that Willa’s father and her best friend Ruby’s mother are dating starts a series of challenges that Willa really, really, really doesn’t want to face. Written with humor, a main character who is at once maturely self-aware and childishly in denial, and a modern set of issues that include divorce, mean girls, blended families, and all the drama that comes with tweenhood, Not If I Can Help It will both entertain and help readers find empathy for fellow classmates (or themselves!) who sometimes behave in unusual ways or have seemingly odd habits.
Willa and her best friend Ruby originally bonded over a shared love of gummy bears. Their friendship thrives amid shared jokes and moments and a patience for each other’s quirks. However, Willa keeps her Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) a secret from Ruby, afraid that her friend will think she’s too weird or too much trouble. When Willa’s dad and Ruby’s mom share that they are dating…and worse…they are IN LOVE, Willa’s response seems to be the only negative one, which begins to drive a wedge between the girls. Throughout the novel’s build up of additional pressures and looming changes to Willa’s structured world, Ruby’s patient and calm responses to Willa belie her own secrets, which eventually help both girls open up and support one another more fully.
For readers unfamiliar with SPD, Not If I Can Help It will introduce them to different coping mechanisms and therapies used in some school districts and with occupational therapists. Willa has support from both parents (she spends every weekend with her mother who lives two hours away), a twice-weekly visit with her occupational therapist, and a school system that finds ways to help Willa feel more comfortable and even directly useful to a younger student with her own challenges. Similar to FOCUSED by Alyson Gerber, Willa’s experience seems a little too perfect with the support she receives and the resolutions to her conflicts in the novel. However, in presenting a situation to which parents, friends, and school systems should aspire, the novel provides both hope for and a normalization of differences like Sensory Processing Disorder.
The novel’s drama doesn’t all stem from Willa’s responses to her father’s romance with her best friend’s mother. An annoying little brother, a mean girl at school, stress about leaving elementary school for middle school, convincing her dad to get a dog, and making big decisions like whether or not to move to her mom and stepdad’s place all factor in to Willa’s life. In addition, Willa is testing her independence and coping strategies even as she is always aware of her SPD and how it affects her routine. Most middle grade readers will find a lot to relate to during Willa’s day-to-day adventures, and they’ll learn about the stresses other kids experience as well.
NOT IF I CAN HELP IT is accessible and fun despite dealing with some heavy middle-grade topics. Highly recommended.