Book Review: Adina at Her Best by Rebecca Klempner (Menucha Publishers 2019)
Talia Liben Yarmush
Adina at Her Best follows three days in the life of Adina Ben-Ami. In many ways, Adina is a typical fourth grade girl. She teases her little brother, she looks up to her older sister, she sneaks snacks with her best friend. But Adina also speaks without thinking, hurting people’s feelings unintentionally and getting herself into trouble.
Adina desperately wants to go on her school trip to Rancho Los Cerritos, but she keeps getting in her own way. Forgetful, impulsive, absent-minded, Adina is representative of so many children who struggle with the same symptoms. She wants to concentrate, to listen, to remember, but no matter how hard she tries, she doesn’t seem able to succeed.
What I like most about Adina is that manifestations of her limitations are written with both subtlety and thoughtfulness. Adina is a not a caricature; she is fully-formed, with positive attributes and a likeable personality. Author Rebecca Klempner clearly differentiates the actions from the actor, and in the process, creates a character who is both fallible and relatable.
Throughout the book, Klempner continues to write her characters with depth and consideration. With the same care that Klempner takes in dealing with Adina’s limitations, Klempner writes African American, Latino American, and non-Jewish characters with equal complexity and dignity. Although she is a minor character, Shirley, Adina’s African American bus driver, is my favorite character in the book. She is kind to the children, has a good sense of humor, and is written without cliché.
Klempner goes on to treat the history of Rancho Los Cerritos, and the peoples who once lived there, with the same profundity. Indeed, Klempner writes a deeply religious book at its core that treats those outside the religion with the utmost respect, and would appeal to any middle grade reader, regardless of religious affiliation.
Perhaps most moving about Adina at Her Best is how Klempner illustrates the ways in which the adults in Adina’s life show concern for her well-being, as well as an obvious appreciation for who she is at her core. Far too many books for this age group include parents or teachers who are the enemy: cartoon-like characters who breed distrust and dislike of authoritative figures. With a focus on positive middot and a desire to help Adina to be the best she can be, the adults in Adina’s life show a true understanding of both Adina’s limitations and what is inside her heart. Time and again, they are portrayed both authentically and sympathetically. Because it is not primarily adults who will be reading this book, these depictions reinforce to young readers the need to accept others as they are; the knowledge that if they strive to be at their best, they will be accepted in return; and perhaps most importantly, that there are adults in their lives who want—and are able—to help.
While I found the beginning a little difficult to jump into—a personal preference against first person narratives—it only took a few pages until I was hooked. The trajectory of Adina’s life within these three days—from getting in trouble for rude behavior towards a substitute teacher, to saving the day and subsequently asking for the help she needs—is both inspiring and realistic. If it helps just one reader decide that he, too, needs help—and that asking for assistance is not a weakness but something to be admired—then Klempner has not only written a page-turner, but one that could truly help change people’s lives.