Just Like That

Written by Gary D. Schmidt
Review by Lyn Miller-Lachmann

After the death of her best friend, Mary Jane Kowalski’s parents send her to boarding school in Maine for eighth grade. The all-girls school is stuffy and strict, even for the late 1960s. Broader social changes and anti-war sentiment seem far away, even though the two teenage servants, Alethea and Bettye, have older brothers fighting in Vietnam. Mary Jane, a scholarship student from Long Island, gets into trouble for fraternizing with Alethea and Bettye. She struggles to make friends with her snooty roommate and her other wealthy classmates who have known each other for years. She offends the prim English teacher by asking to write her book report on The Grapes of Wrath. At the same time, she catches the eye of headmistress Mrs. MacKnockater, who has a subversive streak and has informally adopted Matt, a homeless 14-year-old boy on the run from a violent New York City gang. Mary Jane and Matt eventually become friends as they bond over their respective losses, and she offers cover as he tries to outwit his shadowy pursuers.

Just Like That is Schmidt’s third book set in the 1960s with interconnected characters, following The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now. Mary Jane’s story will satisfy fans of the other two books, and, like them, it portrays troubled characters who face almost overwhelming obstacles and find help in unexpected places. Even those who seem like villains appear three-dimensional, showing young readers that conflicts aren’t black and white, and kindness, persistence, and understanding can soften even the hardest hearts. The book connects this uplifting message to a historical period during which authority was questioned and families and communities became divided over a senseless, bloody, distant war. Age 10+.