‘My Name is Layla’ by Reyna Marder Gentin
Published by TouchPoint Press
The Blue Nib doesn’t usually review books aimed at children, however, ‘My Name is Layla’ is written by a contributor so we made an exception. ‘My Name is Layla’ is aimed at Middle Grade children.
Thirteen-year-old Layla is known to her mother and older brother as ‘munk, short for Chipmunk. Layla was her father’s choice and he’s not been in her life since she was a baby and her mother hates the name Layla because it reminds her of him. Nick does remember their father and is not a fan. Their mother works as an ER nurse so Layla and Nick have to get ready for school by themselves. Picking out her outfit for the first day of a new school year, Layla is unsure whether to go for a tee shirt with a slogan or a plain one, ‘I thought about the words that the teachers would see written on a blank slate, if not tomorrow, then soon enough: “Lazy,” “Underachiever,” “Unmotivated,” “Daydreamer.”‘
Layla’s two key friends are Liza, her best friend, and Sammy who lives nearby. First period’s English with McCarthy, a new teacher. When he turns on the smartboard, ‘McCarthy’s got a quote up there and it’s something about rabbits, but no matter how slowly I go over it in my head, it isn’t making sense. The words hop around like any good bunny should, refusing to stay still so I can get a grip on what they mean.’
McCarthy sets homework for the class to describe an instance where they felt like an outsider. Layla types up two pages, sends it minutes before the deadline and gets a C+. McCarthy asks her to stay behind after class. He says that sending paragraphs of ‘words that weren’t really words’ was inspired and a metaphor for an outsider not being able to communicate. Then he thought it could be that Layla didn’t want to tell him something personal and it was a way of dodging the assignment. He wasn’t sure whether to give her a A or an F so comprised with a C+. Another dodgy grade to add to the stack in her locker.
Sammy asks Layla to the homecoming game which she’s going to anyway because her brother Nick’s playing. Sammy and Layla talk about the test in English. Layla confesses she watched the movie so was puzzled by one of the questions about the ending. Sammy comments, ‘Sometimes people who have trouble reading get extra time for assignments and tests. Or they get help from Mrs. Hirsch in the Learning Center.’ Layla asks him if he thinks she’s stupid. He doesn’t get chance to answer because Nick’s injured – a collision that’s caused a knee injury and possible concussion. Layla overhears a conversation where her mother tells her father that he can’t just, ‘waltz back into their lives.’ Layla’s overheard enough to learn where her father works. She sneaks him a note inviting him to Thanksgiving.
McCarthy, the new English teacher, sets another assignment about a poem. He gives Layla Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’. Next class McCarthy says he’s going to read one of the assignments anonymously. ‘This poem speaks to me because I’m also facing a choice in my life. I can keep going down the path I’m on, but it feels like a dead end. Or I can choose to do something totally different—even though I don’t know where it leads yet. It’s my choice whether to break free. It could be scary, but it also could be big. I hope I have the courage to choose the new path.’ Layla receives an A, her best grade ever, but the feeling doesn’t last long as a couple of students reckon the teacher just thought it would make her feel better about herself.
Things start to go wrong. Her father turned up at Thanksgiving but her mother refused to let him in. Nick made it clear he didn’t want their father there. Parent-teacher conference evening looms. Nick’s still recuperating from the surgery on his knee injury and not the supportive big brother he usually is. Layla thinks Sammy’s comment about the Learning Center means he thinks her stupid. She loiters at the school lockers. She has Nick’s lighter in her pocket.
The decision she makes next is about to change her life forever. Will she be brave enough to face the road not taken or feebly carry on as before? What she’s about to do will teach her about the value of friendship, the bond between her and her brother, that her father’s not quite what he seems and the difference a good teacher can make. Her decision leads her to dismiss her childhood nickname of ’munk and insist she’s called by her name, Layla.
Layla is likeable and engaging. She thinks like a teenager, worried about her friendships, of getting by at school, having rejected the idea she’d be a success. Liza and Sammy are good friends and the three operate within the limits of teenagerhood, one minute seeming to make adult commentaries on the world, the next giggling like kids. Nick’s a supportive older brother, bordering on substitute father figure when needed. Mom’s a busy nurse doing her best to support two children, setting firm boundaries but retaining enough flexibility when required. Layla’s father is a vague outline: her mother has a clear view that he’s a waster but Layla sees a different side to him and he gets to break the loser dad stereotype when it matters.
Layla’s struggles lie with her inability to process written words. She’s eloquent, funny, a quick-thinker and her friends have plenty of time for her. But she gets impatient and puts herself down, frustrated by her grades. Her teachers talk about her exemplary attitude and effort she puts in but don’t have an explanation for why her intelligence isn’t reflected in her written work. The new English teacher, McCarthy, offers a breakthrough, but it all depends on Layla’s willingness to make the right decision.
In ‘My Name is Layla’, Reyna Marder Gentin has created an engaging, thoughtful story that doesn’t spell out its core theme but conveys it through the protagonist’s viewpoint and allows her to decide her fate.