Twelve-year-old Olivia lives a wild and exciting life — in her imagination. In real life, Olivia, her mother, and her little sister, Berkeley, live a hand-to-mouth existence in a trailer park. But Olivia is convinced that one day their luck will change. She’ll win one of the contests and sweepstakes she’s always entering, or her father will come back to them, or something else will happen to make everything magically better.
Instead, things just keep getting worse, until Olivia is forced to take Berkeley to school with her and hide her in a supply closet all day, because their mother can’t or won’t send her to day care.
“You May Already Be a Winner” by Ann Dee Ellis tells Olivia’s story in a way that will elicit sympathy from its middle-school audience, even if they may sometimes find it hard to follow. Olivia is prone to going off into wild flights of fantasy in the middle of describing an ordinary event, and while this makes sense for the character, it also makes it easy for the reader to lose the thread of the story. She’s also prone to repetition, rambling, and awkward sentence and paragraph construction, which doesn’t help. I understand that the author was trying to capture the speech patterns of a troubled but imaginative 12-year-old girl, but I wish she had been able to do it in ways that helped the flow of the book instead of hampering it.
As far as the character herself, however, Olivia is brave and selfless, always putting her little sister first. Part of the book’s pathos lies in her struggle to take on the burdens of an adult when no one else in her life will carry them for her. So we see her and Berkeley dealing with situations that little girls shouldn’t have to deal with — not just the supply closet, but having to stay home from school for weeks because of the day care situation, or hearing that their father may have a girlfriend, or witnessing outbursts and fights among neighbors that threaten to turn violent.
At the book’s climax, Olivia finally loses her self-control after having put up with too much for too long. At least this is the point where the adults in her life start to try to get their act together, but by then it’s hard not to wonder if it’s too little, too late.
Aside from little girls in adult situations, the other content issues in the book include dishonesty — Olivia lies to her father in e-mails, and her friend Bart lies to her about all kinds of things. Neither child lies out of malice, only out of a desire to make life seem better than it is, but eventually both start to come to grips with reality and learn to trust each other. Olivia sometimes has romantic fantasies about Bart, but they involve nothing more than hugging and kissing. Finally, Olivia sometimes calls people names (“dumb-bum” and other junior high-ish names), though usually only in the privacy of her own mind.
“You May Already Be a Winner” has a poignant sort of appeal. But because of both the form and the content, some middle-schoolers may find it tough going.
Image courtesy of Dial Books for Young Readers. Review copy obtained from the reviewer’s local library.