MEOW OR NEVER by Jazz Taylor is much more hefty on the issues than the cover makes it seem. What looks like a simple middle grade novel about a secret pet and a secret crush rustles up topics centered on anxiety, sexual orientation, emotional parental abuse, and the uncertainty of blossoming friendships. A smooth, easy read, this book is simple enough to attract emerging readers and detailed enough to hold the attention of more experienced readers.
The main character Avery is a Black, gay, new-girl-in-town who suffers from panic attacks and a lack of friends. Jazz Taylor creates situations that feel authentic and unforced. Middle grade readers will recognize typical family situations including annoying siblings and too busy parents. They’ll also delight in discovering a secret cat in a theater closet and following as Avery tries to overcome deep anxiety and self-doubt. The school scenes are balanced with the interactions at home, and we get to know the parents and siblings of the main characters just enough to get a sense of their backgrounds.
The main conflict for Avery is grappling with her anxiety about singing and acting in the school play. Her two new friends, Nic and Harper, are both involved with the play, and to complicate matters, Avery has a long-time crush on Nic. Harper is reeling from her mother’s emotional and physical neglect, and Avery’s assessment of the situation allows her to help Harper indirectly, for a time. Treatment of LGBTQ issues and race issues are given indirect treatment with side discussions between friend groups as well. With after school visits to the theater cat and surprisingly mature insight and support from her friends, her school counselor, and even her annoying older brother, Avery is able to navigate a solution that works for her.
Particularly impressive is Taylor’s treatment of panic attacks, including strategies for helping to minimize the effects. She is also skilled at creating believable and age appropriate situations for the characters to experience. The friendships manage to feel organic, even though Avery’s self-doubt threatens to end them. The crush Avery has for Nic also develops realistically, as does her work towards performing on stage. A bonus is that the resolution to the main conflict doesn’t have a fairy tale ending, although it’s satisfying. I hesitate to describe this book as “sweet” or “adorable” because together with the cover and title (signature style of the WISH series) that would give the impression it’s more sugary than substantial. And MEOW OR NEVER is definitely accessible and substantial.