As Christina Wyman’s heartfelt and often heartbreakingly realistic Jawbreaker opens, Maximillia (Max) Plink receives distressing news from her orthodontist.

Dr. Watson says Max’s braces aren’t enough to prevent possible future double jaw surgery—it’s time to start wearing headgear known as “the jawbreaker” for 16 hours a day. It’s yet another thing that makes Max, a witty and kind seventh grader, feel like an outsider in her own life. She observes, “I basically have a shiny metal orb around my head. You could probably stand me on the roof of your house to get a better Wi-Fi signal.”

Despite this unwelcome fashion statement, Max perseveres. She’s used to trying to stay positive, because she’s already relentlessly bullied at school. The most enthusiastic participant in this cruelty is her own younger sister, Alex. Their parents routinely downplay Max’s concerns. Worried about finances, they’re having loud arguments more frequently than usual.

Thankfully, Max finds respite with her best friend Shrynn and as a writer for her school newspaper. When she learns of a journalism competition sponsored by their local Brooklyn news station, it sounds like the path to a happier future. But there’s a catch: A video essay is required for entry. “The thought of my face, my mouth, my teeth living online until the end of time makes me want to cry,” Max thinks.

Tantalizing suspense builds as the contest deadline approaches. As Max contends with all the stressors swirling around her, she wrestles with difficult questions: Should she insist her parents do something about Alex? Would it be a mistake to enter the contest and show her face to the world? Why is Shrynn acting so standoffish lately?

Wyman demonstrates an impressive ability to conjure up both the pain and delight of middle school with immediacy and empathy. An impassioned author’s note reveals that Wyman’s own background inspired this sometimes harrowing, but ultimately hopeful, story. “Sometimes finding joy takes a lot of work,” she notes. Reading Jawbreaker is an excellent and highly gratifying start.

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