A girl, a guitar, and a move to Nashville. With these three clues, you might think you know what Tune It Out, Jamie Sumner’s second middle-grade novel, is all about. But if you assumed 12-year-old Louise Montgomery is a rising star with a manager mom, you’d be wrong. Or at least you’d only be partially right.
Lou’s life has been one move after another, traveling around the country in the truck she and her mom also live in, looking for the next place for Lou to perform. The last time she was in school was fourth grade, in Biloxi. That was also the last time somewhere felt like home, the last time they had enough to eat, and the last time Lou could believe she was “normal.” Lou never liked loud noises and hated to be touched, and when she freaked out at recess, the school suggested testing. Lou and her mom were on the road the next day. “That,” Lou says, “was the end of Biloxi.”
In Tahoe, Lou’s big break arrives. An agent hears her sing and invites them to LA. They plan to leave after her mom’s shift at the diner, but with no bus at that hour, Lou has to drive the truck to pick up her mom. “It’s no big deal, only a few miles down the road. I’ve been driving since I was ten. I just have to be careful not to get spotted.” That night a storm blows in, and as Lou starts out, there’s already snow covering the ground and more falling. Then a moose comes out of nowhere, and the truck is in a ditch, and the next thing Lou knows, Child Protective Services is investigating her mom, and Lou is sent to live with her Aunt Ginger in Nashville.
Once in Nashville, everything Lou thought was true collides with her new reality. Her mom has always been her safe place, the only person Lou didn’t have to fear. Now, left with Ginger and her husband, Dan, Lou feels abandoned. Her mom isn’t calling, isn’t checking in. Despite the awkward transition, Dan and Ginger show Lou what a home can be: regular meals, clean clothes, and a room of her own with thick carpet and a soft mattress. Even as Lou relishes these new comforts, she feels torn: “Guilt rattles around in my head at the thought that I slept so hard in a nice fluffy bed while Mom is who knows where.” At least living with Ginger means she won’t have to perform anymore.
And then there’s school. Dan teaches at Chickering Academy, the expensive private school where Lou will attend sixth grade. He also introduces her to Well — or as Well explains, “Maxwell, actually, but that’s atrocious. Nobody needs that kind of name unless they own a country. Am I right?”
Well is a delightful character. He’s gregarious and warm and insistent Lou will be his friend, will join him in theater class, will love his friends. And he’s right. He introduces her to new music, makes her a playlist, and is the first to discover her voice. But he is also patient and kind — just the friend Lou has always wanted.
Chickering Academy also brings Lou to Andrea, a counselor who helps clarify the most confusing and disruptive parts of Lou’s past: the panic at fire drills, the anxiety over crowds, the way every performance made her feel sick and scared and sad. Andrea suggests that Lou has a sensory processing disorder (SPD), and though it all makes sense, Lou resists: “The minute I let Andrea tell everyone about this, it’ll be all over. I’ll be the ‘special-needs kid.’ The kid with the disorder. My chance at normal will disappear. Fighters keep fighting.”
Lou has more fighting ahead of her, and ultimately, she has to decide whether to accept all the new in her life: whether to stay with Ginger and Dan or go back to her mom; whether to work with Andrea and learn how to manage her SPD; whether to trust the people around her, letting them love her and help her shine; and most importantly – whether and when to sing.
What Sumner does so skillfully with Tune It Out is make Lou (with her SPD) feel so ordinary, a whole and complex person, more than just a diagnosis. She also brings SPD to life with a thoughtful touch, never minimizing Lou or the challenges she faces, managing a balance that feels like real life. Readers may not be surprised by the plot as it develops, but they will fall in love with Lou and the circle of community that expands around her. Like all of us, Lou is a work-in-progress, learning that the only way we get through is together.
Sara Beth West is a writer and reviewer, usually found at sarabethwest.com. She lives in Chattanooga with her family, dogs, and a cat who always, always, always thinks it is time for dinner.
Tagged: Book Reviews