Summary: Charlie, short for Charlena, is an only child whose mother died from cancer when Charlie was just a little girl. Faced with the decision of whether to spend her summer in Toronto with her dad and his new girlfriend or in Lake Ringrose with her grandmother in the house her mother grew up in. Just before the summer begins she has an intense conversation with her teacher and takes offense when he challenges her writing. When the teacher has a heart attack later that night, Charlie feels guilty and takes his criticisms to heart. Turns out her summer away is going to provide her with a lot of grist for her upcoming writing career as she learns more about her mother’s past than she ever thought possible.
Number of Pages: 228
Age Range: 15-17
Review: The cover looks like Charlie has perhaps just killed someone, but I promise she didn’t. Instead, Grist by Heather Waldorf is about a blossoming writer who needs to learn to take criticism while gleaning material from her own life to inspire her writing. The summer she goes to live with her grandmother in Lake Ringrose, her father is spending the summer in Toronto with his girlfriend and her best friend is in Australia. There’s plenty of grist for Charlie’s stories as she gets to know the people in town and falls for Kerry, a slightly older and scarred young man with demons of his own.
I don’t want to write too much about the plot because I’m afraid of giving something away, but I loved how Waldorf begins the book with a scene where Mr. Pollen asks Charlie to expand on a story she wrote and ends the book with Charlie giving him the completed story after her complicated summer.
I also love that Grist is about more than Charlie just finding things to write about. Waldorf brings in an element of grief when it is revealed that Charlie is so afraid of dying from cancer like her mother that she makes her life uneventful on purpose so she won’t grow too attached to it in case she gets sick. Even at the beginning of the book, Charlie already has a wealth of material from her past to fuel her writing, but it takes a summer of learning about her mother and her family to bring it all out.
It’s a great book for teen writers because Charlie’s story will spark inspiration and imagination. I had forgotten the joy that came when I used to be a journal writer, but Grist brought it all back. Charlie is a strong character who is encouraged to follow her dreams, and this is the complex story of how she gains the confidence to do so.
“‘Think about it. You talk about creating this parallel storybook universe where people say and do the things you’d like to do in real life, but don’t have the guts. Don’t you think your writing would be stronger if you lived a little more outside your head, if you let yourself have a little fun and disaster in your life, then write about it?'” – Kerry from Grist by Heather Waldorf, pages 102-103
“I giggled, then started blubbering all over again. ‘I’m sorry.’ I wiped my eyes angrily.
‘Don’t be sorry for crying, Char. You have every right.’
‘I hate crying. I always wanted to be tough for you.’
‘Forget about being tough for me,’ Mike said. ‘Be strong – for yourself. Strong enough not to hide from your emotions.'” – Conversation between Charlie and her father Mike from Grist by Heather Waldorf, page 186
“I shrugged. ‘I just always figured that if my life was dull and ordinary, if I didn’t feel things too deeply, or try too hard at anything, that it wouldn’t hurt as much to die young. I wouldn’t know how much I was going to miss. Other people (you, Mike!) wouldn’t miss me so much when I was gone.’ We were drifting out in the middle of the lake but I didn’t care.
‘Char, you know life doesn’t work like that. There are no guarantees. Not for you, me, Geri, or anyone else.’
‘I know, I know, we could all get hit by a truck tomorrow. But – ‘
‘It’s no excuse not to make the most of the life you have!’ Mike was empathic. ‘It is a reason to work every day to pursue your dreams and follow your heart, even if in the end your life gets cut short. It took me a long time – way too long – to understand that.'” – Conversation between Charlie and her father Mike from Grist by Heather Waldorf, pages 190-191
“‘Of course not,’ I said, trying not to laugh. Mr. Pollen would never change. And maybe I loved him for that; he was the only adult in my life who’d never lied to me. ‘I need to learn to question myself, right?’ I asked. ‘And to question the world. Nothing – not this town, this school, my friends, my foes, my life – is mundane if I see it through the eyes of a writer.'” – Charlie from Grist by Heather Waldorf, page 224
“‘I had writer’s block.’ And heartache. And apathy. And boredom.
Mr. Pollen shook his head. ‘You were afraid.’
I hated to admit it, but he was right. Dead on. I’d been afraid. A total chickenshit. Afraid of the future. Afraid of being left behind. Afraid of my own shadow.'” – Conversation between Charlie and Mr. Pollen from Grist by Heather Waldorf, page 226-227
Grist by Heather Waldorf is published by Red Deer Press, (2006).