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⭐️ Book Review: The First State of Being by Erin Entrada-Kelly


I think my love of science fiction began with All Summer In A Day by Ray Bradbury. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, it was easy to be drawn into a short story about a group of kids living on a planet where the sun only comes out once every seven years. It's also true that, on several levels, I related to Margot, the young girl at the center of the story, whose recent arrival on the rainy planet makes her the only kid in her class who remembers the sun. An outsider, Margot's memories of a world where the sun makes regular appearances are suspect. She is both doubted and envied. And when her classmates lock her in a closet, just as the sun is about to appear, only to then forget about her until it's gone again for another seven years, I knew how Margot felt. As a kid who moved around a lot, I understood the feeling of being different. I knew what it was like to be a source of fascination and repulsion among new groups of kids. And I knew from experience that people were capable of both great kindness and great cruelty.


I thought about All Summer In A Day a lot while reading Erin Entrada-Kelly's new middle grade novel, The First State of Being. While the two stories are different in many ways, both do what all great science fiction does to some degree: they use elements like futurism, space exploration and time travel in order to help us better understand who we are in the here and now; they give us a glimpse into a potential version of tomorrow in order to help us better understand the impact of the choices we make today; and they use science and technology in order to help us better understand what it means to be human.


As The First State of Being opens, it's August 1999 and Michael Rosario is worried. He's worried about his mom, who has to work three jobs after being fired from her role as the assistant manager at Super Saver. And he's worried that she was fired because of him. He's worried that his mom's effort to move them to the Fox Run Apartments, so that he can have a fresh start at a new school, was wasted, because he's never going to fit in with other kids. He's worried that his babysitter, and first crush, Gibby, will only ever see him as "just a kid," even though today is his 12th birthday. And he's worried that he'll get caught with the can of peaches in his pocket as he attempts to leave the Super Saver without paying for it. But, mostly, Michael is worried about Y2K: the potential technology failure that was predicted to wreak havoc across computer systems at the end of 1999, causing everything from banks to power-grids to shut down.


Michael's worries only increase when a mysterious teenager, around Gibby's age, turns up at Fox Run Apartments. Putting aside that he's wearing unfamiliar clothing and using slang neither Michael nor Gibby have ever heard before, when the strange interloper introduces himself as Ridge and asks what year it is, even Mr. Mosley, the apartment complex's wise and affable maintenance man, recognizes that there's "something off" about him. Still, Michael and Gibby (mostly Gibby) can't help but be curious and it isn't long before they discover that Ridge is a time traveler, who ended up in 1999 partly as a result of a misguided and reckless attempt to prove himself to his family and partly because 1999 is his favorite year in history. Eager to show Ridge things that don't exist in his time print, like cars and shopping malls, the three teens embark on an adventure that is cut short when it becomes clear that a) Ridge hasn't developed immunity to 20th century illnesses (like the common cold) and b) his STM (Spatial Teleportation Module) is malfunctioning - making it impossible for him to return to his own time. Torn between conflicting desires to help Ridge repair the STM so he can go home, and his own need to learn more about the future, (specifically Y2K), so that he can prepare for it, Michael is faced with choices that will ultimately determine what kind of person he wants to be.


There are so many things to love about this book, y'all.


First, let's talk about the setting. Although its target readers likely won't experience them in the same way I did, for me, there was something incredibly comforting and nostalgic about the references to 1990s pop culture that are peppered throughout the book. I won't lie, it hurts my heart to think of books set in the 1990s as "historical fiction," but the reality is this decade really does feel like ancient history for today's middle grade readers. That said, I couldn't help but think about all the fun ways teachers and librarians could introduce kids to this time period while reading The First State of Being together. With that in mind, while I didn't make a playlist for this book, I did find one that I think would make a great tool for connecting readers' hearts to characters who, in their minds, lived a long, long time ago.


Now, let's talk about the structure of the book. While mostly set in 1999, the third person narrative is interspersed with excerpts from informational texts and audio transcripts that serve two purposes. First, they give readers a glimpse into the invention of time travel itself and the controversies surrounding this technology in the future. Much like the technological advances of today (and of 1999!) with every new capability, humans are left to wonder whether or not our ability to do a thing justifies us actually doing it. These excerpts are a reminder to young readers that while the tools we use may change, our fears and foibles and the battles we fight with one another (and with ourselves) as a result, remain largely the same. These breaks from the action in1999 also help readers get to know Ridge's family who, from the future, are frantically trying to fix the STM so that they can find Ridge and bring him back before something terrible happens to him or to the space-time continuum!


And finally, let's talk about the characters. Newbery medalist Erin Entrada-Kelly's masterful character building is on full display in The First State of Being. It's impossible not to fall in love with Michael, who is so incredibly aware and afraid of how his every action may harm someone else. As readers, we instantly want to protect Michael's sensitive and gentle heart, which make characters like his mom, Mr. Mosley and Gibby all the more tender and essential. While Michael's mom is often at work, she is a loving and reassuring force in his life. And, she's made sure that Michael is surrounded by similar support when she's not there. Even though Michael's family can only afford to hire her a few days a week, Gibby looks after Michael's heart like it's her full-time job. And then, there's Mr. Mosley, who spends his lunch breaks eating bologna sandwiches with Michael, while passing on pearls of wisdom like, "Before you go to sleep at night, ask yourself: was I the best person I could be today? If the answer is no, do better tomorrow.” Middle Grade novels need more characters like the adults (and near adults) in Michael's life: people who see his shy, sensitive heart as a gift that needs to be protected and celebrated.


In the end, while I think turns of phrase like "modern day classics" are over used in describing children's literature, The First State of Being feels worthy of the distinction. Perhaps that's why my own heart keeps drawing a link between Erin Entrada-Kelly's latest book with All Summer in A Day. Just as the latter turned me into a science fiction lover many moons ago, I can't help but imagine The First State of Being doing the same for many young readers today. After all, both stories help us imagine a future world in which technology changes but the most important thing, our need for love, kindness and connection, remains the same.


 

ISBN: 9780063337312

Publication: March 20, 2024

Audience: While Michael is 12 (and Gibby and Ridge are older teens), The First State of Being feels like a good fit for readers in grades 5 and up.


Bonus Content:

Just for fun, I created a coloring sheet to go along with The First State of Being. I've been thinking a lot lately about the ways that reading (and coloring!) can serve as stress reducers during a time when so many of us (kids included!) are experiencing a great deal of stress. In my heart of hearts, I'd like to think that this resource might entice colorers to pick up Erin's book, while also giving those readers who have already fallen in love with it, a fun way to stay connected to the story, but... it's fine if kids (of all ages!) just have fun coloring it, too. You can access the free download here.



And finally, although the event is not live yet (I'll update this post when it is) Erin Entrada Kelly will join me (to chat about The First State of Being!) in May for that month's Bookelicious Middle Grade Book Club! Registration for this event is FREE and there will be a recording, so reserve your spot today - or as soon as the event is live!


Also please enjoy a special discount of 20% off the titles mentioned in this post (or others of your choice) by visiting Bookelicious and using the code JENNIFERLAGARDE. Note: I do not make any money when you purchase books from Bookelicious, but I am delighted that you get to save some! HOWEVER, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that buying books from Bookelicious is the way we keep these events free while also supporting the authors and illustrators who join us each month, so... I hope you'll think of your book purchases from Bookelicous as supporting a good cause!

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