October 13, 2021

Welcome Back, Maple Mehta-Cohen

By Kate McGovern
In this compassionate and often funny novel, Maple has been keeping a big secret, and when it’s discovered, she must repeat fifth grade.
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Maple Mehta-Cohen is a bright 11-year-old with an impressive vocabulary whose artistic parents encourage her creativity. Last year, she loved her fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Littleton-Chan, whose enthusiasm for teaching was genuine and whose cool bicultural surname was similar to Maple’s own “Indian-Jewish hyphenated situation.” Even so, as the school year wound to a close, Maple was raring to start sixth grade—middle school, at last!—alongside her two BFFs, Marigold and Aislinn.

But Maple’s been keeping a secret, and last April, Mrs. Littleton-Chan became the first person to notice: As Maple puts it, “I can’t really read. . . . A whole page is like an ocean. When I look at it, I feel like I’m drowning.” Diagnosed with “characteristics of dyslexia,” Maple must repeat fifth grade in Mrs. Littleton-Chan’s class to bolster her reading skills and build a better foundation for success in sixth grade.

Maple sees the logic behind this decision, but she still feels frustrated and embarrassed. She keeps the news a secret all summer, only telling her besties right before school begins in the fall. When she’s assigned to show around the new kid, Jack, she tells him she’s back in fifth grade as part of a hush-hush budget measure so she can serve as a special assistant to overworked teachers.

Alas, as the days pass, Maple’s hilariously clever fib proves difficult to maintain amid the hard work she’s putting in with her new reading group, her worries about disappointing her parents, her deep investment in the mystery tale she’s dictating into her digital recorder and her inability to decide on a subject for the big class project. Phew!

McGovern, the author of two previous YA novels, notes in her acknowledgments that dyslexia is “by far the most common language-based learning disability” and describes consulting with reading experts to ensure the book’s authenticity. Mission accomplished: Maple’s learning challenges and their impact on her emotional health are carefully and realistically rendered. So, too, is her heartwarming journey to shedding her secrets and embracing her true, flawed, wonderful self. Maple is a character that readers of all stripes will relate to, and McGovern surrounds her with kind, supportive adults who are appealing in their own right. Warmly compassionate and often funny, Welcome Back, Maple Mehta-Cohen is an inspiring and comforting read.

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