Because of the Rabbit by Cynthia Lord. Grades 3-5. Scholastic, 2019. 192 pages. Reviewed from galley provided by publisher.
But it's not as easy as she thought it would be. There are a lot of weird rules in public school, it takes way too long to get through each day (at home she was usually done with her lessons by lunchtime), and most of the kids seem to already have established friend groups. Each day, Emma longs to get home to the newest addition to her family: a pet rabbit that she and her game warden dad rescued and that Emma has named Monsieur Lapin in honor of the forest stories her Pepere used to tell her.
It turns out that Lapi might just be the key to making a new friend, but not the first friend Emma would have chosen. Jack, a kid who sits in her desk cluster and who has special needs, LOVES animals. Emma has a list of things she's looking for in a best friend: likes the things she likes, always chooses her side, accepts her for herself... and Jack ticks a lot of those boxes. But, while the other kids in class are mostly kind to Jack, no one hangs out with him outside of school. If Emma befriends Jack is she branding herself a weirdo? Can she find the strength to navigate school and stay true to herself?
This is the sweet, realistic story that we've come to expect from Cynthia Lord. Emma is a likeable character who is easy to root for, even when she's sometimes making questionable choices. I loved the strong sense of setting, a small community in the mountains of Maine and Emma's house on the lake and all the nature all around them.
And even though this is a gentle story, it packs a bit of a punch, as well. I found myself getting emotional towards the end as Emma tackles something that is really hard for her to do, even though it's the right thing to do. The characters really felt real to me and that makes sense since a lot of this story was inspired by elements of the author's life - she has an adult son with autism, her children were homeschooled and her daughter went from that to public school, and they even keep rabbits.
Young animal lovers will eat this book with a spoon. Hand it to readers who enjoyed A Boy Called Bat by Elana K. Arnold (Walden Pond, 2017), which also features a neurodiverse character obsessed with animals.
Readers who enjoyed the adventures of a former homeschooler starting middle school in graphic novel All's Fair in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson (Dial, 2017) will also be interested in Emma's journey.
And readers who like school stories about unlikely friends like Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan (Scholastic, 2016) will love reading about Emma's quest to make a friend.