Written by Ayun Halliday; Drawn by Paul Hoppe
Schwartz & Wade; $15.99
There’s a panel in Ayun Halliday and Paul Hoppe’s Peanut that could also serve as a log line for the book. “The hardest thing about a peanut allergy,” says the main character, Sadie Wildhack, “is remembering to stay vigilant. Especially if you don’t have one.” That’s a gripping concept for a story and I immediately wanted to open the book to learn a) how Sadie got herself into that situation, and b) how she was going to get back out of it again. One of those revelations is satisfying.
If it can be only one, Halliday and Hoppe picked the right one. I won’t spoil how Sadie escapes her lie, but the book ends in a strong, believable, emotional way. It’s the opening that’s shaky as Sadie transfers to a new school and decides to lie about being allergic to peanuts.
While it’s perfectly normal for teenagers to be concerned about fitting into a new place, Sadie seems to be handling it pretty well. Thinking back later on her decision to lie, she wonders if it may have been influenced by a conversation she had with Cheryl, her best friend at her old school. In the flashback to that conversation though, it’s all Cheryl who’s talking about Sadie’s chance to start over and reinvent herself. Sadie appears to brush it off, deflecting Cheryl’s suggestions back at her. But after meeting a girl with peanut allergies, Sadie immediately goes home and orders herself a medical alert bracelet. “I’m not exactly sure what got into me,” she admits. And unfortunately, neither was I.
Like a lot of lies, it spirals out of control. The bracelet and some well-timed questions to the cafeteria server around the right people gets Sadie the attention she’s looking for, but as word spreads, teachers and the school nurse begin to get involved. In addition to being talked about all over school, Sadie makes some real friends, including a wonderful but weird kid named Zoo. Tension and resentment rise though when Sadie realizes that she can’t introduce her school friends to her mom, especially if snacks or meals are part of the event. Her entire identity has become defined by something that’s not real.
Though Peanut is weak in the way it sets Sadie’s problem in motion, once it’s moving the book powerfully and relentlessly hammers the natural drama of the situation. Sadie’s plight becomes increasingly untenable and anyone who’s ever been caught in a lie will relate to the emotions she goes through as she attempts to get out. She fantasizes about coming clean and almost does it several times before chickening out, not trusting her new friendships to withstand the damage. She builds more and more intricate fabrications to protect herself, all the while driving deeper wedges between her and the people she cares about.
Wonderfully, Peanut never preaches about its subject. It provides a warning to readers who haven’t found themselves in a similar situation, but I’m guessing that a lot of its audience will relate to Sadie. Maybe (hopefully!) not to the extent of Sadie’s misery, but I certainly recognized myself in her. I wish I could better understand the beginning of her lie, but I was all in for the middle and inevitable conclusion of it.