Jemima Small (13 in October) is dreading the start of Year 8. The work’s not a problem – she’s the smartest student in her year. Just standing up in class to answer a question, changing for PE, the prospect of the outdoor adventure camping trip; each day is a torment. It’s about how she looks – she’s on the end of joke after tedious joke about being FAT. Her surname doesn’t help, triggering laboured gags swapping BIG for Small and so on. Most of the malice starts with poisonous Lottie Freeman. Rat Face Lottie, as Jemima’s always-there-for her friend Miko calls her, is determined to scupper Jemima’s chances of representing Clifton Academy in the nation’s favourite Boxing Day TV Quiz, Brainiacs. Lottie wants that place for herself, and she’ll do anything to get it.
No sooner has term started than Jemima is told she has been selected to attend a ‘Healthy Lifestyle’ class for overweight pupils – soon known throughout the school as FAT CLUB. The group is run by the irrepressible Gina Grantley-Bond, who turns out to be a life-changer for Jemima. Always smiling, always enthusiastic and, even better, she’s an attentive listener who will go to any lengths to help individual students. Some of Jemima’s regular teachers take a real interest in their pupils too, and they often see the funny side of school life. Although it can feel as though everyone is laughing at her, Jemima does have some loyal friends who stand with her against her persecutors.
Back at home, Jemima feels she could do with far more understanding. She remembers watching the last Brainiacs Final when the winner’s family all wore special T-Shirts and cheered her through every round. Jemima tells us, ‘That was what I wanted more than anything: an unconditional love sort of family.’ As term goes on, she begins to recognise the support she already has, which readers will probably have realised long before she does. She’s got a Dad whose wife walked out when Jemima was six – now he’s trying his loving, muddled best to cope with Jemima with her super-bright brain and her issues about her appearance. He’s also got her exasperating older brother Jasper to deal with, who may love his sister dearly, but he’s hardly going to show that too often in daily life around the house, is he? Dad’s not telling his kids the full story about why Mum left – it’s complicated and tough for him to talk about. There’s another adult living in a shed in the garden – Auntie Luna, who’s into crystals, Tarot Cards, naked bathing by moonlight – that sort of stuff. Luna’s love for her niece and nephew is passionate but, well, unconventional. Given her preoccupations, Jemima can’t always read Dad, Jasper and Auntie Luna, and so sometimes she longs for the secure love (that never was) of her missing Mum.
All this could have made for an angst-driven narrative, but Jemima’s smartness also emerges in her life-survival tactics. She has the perspective to mock herself and her wryly comic take on things ensures we are always entertained. We know things will turn out okay in the end, Lottie will get her deserved humiliation, Jemima will make it to the Brainiacs Final (though then what?) and there are many funny moments along her journey. Tamsin Winter enables Jemima to understand, little by little, how much support, love and admiration she’s given, both at school and at home. So, by the final page, we know Jemima’s right when she says, ‘I’m not going to spend my whole life being invisible.’