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In the summer of 1968, casualties on both sides of the Vietnam War continue to rise, while in Hicksville, N.Y., Meryl Lee Kowalski—looking forward to entering the eighth grade with her best friend, Holling Hoodhood—learns that everything can change “just like that.” As she struggles to come to terms with her tragic loss, Meryl Lee fights to stave off the Blank, which would “become a hole, a dizzying white hole, and she would fall into it, and she would be the empty hole where the howling echoes rolled around, and she had already come close, very close, to falling in.” 

To help their daughter cope with her loss, Meryl Lee’s parents decide to send her to St. Elene’s Preparatory Academy for Girls in Maine. Meryl Lee feels abandoned in the boarding school where most of the girls have been friends for years and where she’s taught to overcome obstacles with resolution, which would lead to accomplishments.

Meanwhile, along the coast near the school, young Matt Coffin is living in a fishing shack, hiding from unimaginable terror and horrific memories, feeling abandoned with no one to care about his future.

In a suspenseful, spellbinding series of events, Meryl Lee and Matt’s lives intersect after they, at different times, each meet feisty Dr. Nora MacKnockater and crusty Captain Willis Hurd, and encounter the reality of evil and the pervasive power of love and goodness. Meryl Lee begins to understand that not only negative things happen “just like that,” but beauty, friendship, love, understanding, and new beginnings also can. At the same time, Matt longingly and cautiously starts to believe that one day he can be “safe and secure” and find a home.

In Just Like That, master storyteller Gary Schmidt offers middle school readers (and adults, I suggest) a gem of a novel. Schmidt conveys the spiritual comfort and depths of the Christian faith without sermonizing; conveys romantic tenderness with compassion and wisdom; peppers his narrative with subtle and, at times, laugh-out-loud humor; and unflinchingly looks at manifestations of evil on a national and individual scale. (Clarion Books)

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