The Way I Say It

School can be really hard, especially when bullying runs rampant and friendships change over time. When I was in elementary school, I particularly remember one bully giving everyone a hard time in class, and he was challenging to be around. One day, he came into school in a wheelchair because he had broken his femur, and the entire atmosphere in the room changed. Where everyone had been avoiding contact with him, he now inspired empathy from others and things were different from then onward. Reading The Way I Say It by Nancy Tandon brought this memory back to the forefront of my mind, providing a cathartic experience for my younger self.

This story is about a sixth grader named Rory who has always struggled to say the letter R and has therefore never been able to say his own name correctly. Now in middle school, he has a new speech teacher who takes a completely novel approach to the process, and Rory is determined to make changes in time for two important public speaking events at the end of the year. Rory’s social circle has shifted recently, and he has distanced himself from his former friend Brent. When Brent is injured in a bike accident and Rory is assigned as his partner for a group project, everything takes on a different appearance and Rory must look beyond himself to understand the challenges experienced by others. Please see my full review here.

From the first pages, I was tied into this story. Tandon does an excellent job portraying sixth grade students and their communications with one another, although I was definitely not as confident talking to boys—especially in middle school—as the girls in this story are. It is fascinating to observe the changing alliances and opinions of the characters in the book as events take place around them, especially as Rory works to determine his approach to some of the challenges in his own life.

Excellently crafted, the narrative expertly incorporates the story of Muhammad Ali’s life into several key aspects of the plot. The book adds new elements in layers, ultimately constructing a complex structure that is elegantly interconnected. Within this is a study of the nature of human relationships and how complicated they can be. I loved the primarily positive presentation of adult/child interaction in Rory’s life, as well as his growing independence as he learns to speak correctly and develops into a more empathetic individual.

This is a compelling and important story for middle grade readers especially as they work to understand differences between themselves and those around them. Though the narrative spans a school year, the plot moves quickly thanks to superb writing and brief chapters. While readers of all ages will enjoy aspects of Rory’s story, it is a particularly well-designed novel for middle grade students.

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