By Claudia Mills
Margaret Ferguson Books
.Top 10 of 2013
Inside Jacket: Seventh grader Sierra Shepard has always been the perfect student, so when she sees that she accidentally brought her mother’s lunch bag to school, including a paring knife, she immediately turns in the knife at the office. Much to her surprise, her beloved principal places her in in-school suspension and sets a hearing for her expulsion, siting the school’s ironclad zero tolerance policy: no drugs, no weapons, no exceptions. Sierra spends her days in suspension with the so-called troublemakers, especially her classmate Luke, and discovers that their stories are more complicated than she thought. Suddenly none of the lines between right and wrong are as clear as she thought they once were. Everyone makes damaging mistakes—even, it turns out, Sierra herself.
Opening: Sierra Shepherd sat in the office at Longwood Middle School during lunch recess 5A, waiting to see her principal, Mr. Besser.
About the Story: Sierra is a top student, a school leader, and a member of an eight-member acapella choir. She is also one of the principal’s favorite students. When her mother accidentally grabs the wrong lunch bag—the two have identical bags—Sierra innocently takes a paring knife to school her mother intended to use to slice an apple.
Sierra, always one to do the right thing, immediately turns in the offending knife. The principal, proud of the progress his zero tolerance program has made suspends Sierra until an expulsion hearing can be held. Sierra would be spending her days with kids she never intended to be anywhere near. This includes Luke, a perpetually suspended kid from a broken home. Luke calls Sierra Shepherd, Sierra Shep-turd.
Sierra’s father, a fierce lawyer, defends his child. When trying to be reasonable with the principal does not work, Mr. Shepherd has the press—local and national—honing in on the story of the honor student being railroaded by an intolerant zero tolerance policy. Soon things get out of hand and Sierra actually sits in front of the school superintendent, waiting for him to expel her from Longwood Middle School for the infraction of unknowingly bringing a small paring knife to school.
What I Thought: Zero Tolerance starts out as a typical middle grade story of pre-teen angst. Quickly, Zero Tolerance turns into a war of words, fragile feelings, and slipping social status. A group of four friends, all achievers, who stick together slowly seem to be coming apart at one seem. When Sierra finds the knife in her mother’s lunch sack one friend tells her to put it back in the bag, another grabs the knife and shoves it back into the lunch bag, and the third says and does nothing.
Zero Tolerance is a principal’s conundrum. Mr. Bessler, unaware Sierra is the knife wielding student, postures in front of a visiting principal saying, there are no exceptions to the no exception policy, no exceptions. He meant to impress the administrator, not impale his prize student. Who would have believed Sierra would bring a weapon to school? But seriously, is a paring knife a weapon?
I love how the students react. One bright young boy starts a petition, getting nine teachers and hundreds of kids to sign. Will it make a difference? Sierra has a crush on Colin. The more he orchestrates in defense of Sierra, the more she thinks he likes her in return. At least until she sees Colin and Celeste holding hands. Ah, good ole’ Celeste, kicking her BFF when she is already down. Maybe she had no idea Sierra liked Colin “in that way.”
Mom and Dad support their daughter without fail. Dad, a fierce, losing-is-not-an-option attorney is confident Mr. Bessler will rescind his threat of expulsion or he will bury the guy. When he finally has what he needs to do just that, will he be pushed into using the information to save Sierra? Mom, more a peacekeeper than a warrior, wants to consider sending her daughter to a different school. Dad becomes infuriated when his wife and daughter visit a creativity-based charter school—Beautiful Mountain—he had told his wife not to visit.
“…just forget about the fruits and nuts at Pretty Mountain. I’m not having my daughter throw away a first-class education at the most rigorous school in the district for some touchy-feely hipster nonsense.”
This confident attorney, devoted to his daughter and her future, must go up against a confident principal, whose zero tolerance policy turned Longwood Middle School into that most rigorous school in the district. A battle is set. I love the father’s attitude toward his daughter. Mom calls the attorney’s love for his daughter the only chink in his armor. The chink could crack.
I like Zero Tolerance’s look at a policy once considered the only way to keep drugs and weapons from schools. If that meant hurting one or two innocent kids for the greater good, it had to be. I love that Sierra, who once would never consider Luke a friend, has so changed her mind about the “bad” kids. She is realizing that few things are cut and dry; that most situations are complicated. Middle school is the beginning of this awareness and Zero Tolerance explains this dissonance in a way kids this age—8 to 12—can understand. This is a good story and Sierra is easy to root for, but so are her father, and the principal. Near the end, even the mean-spirited, soul-crushing Ms. Lin can make you feel for her.
Zero Tolerance is a book teachers can easily use in the classroom. The story is easy to read, flows naturally in a tone kids will understand, and does not paint any one adult as a villain. Adults will also like this story. The middle school setting is not the center of the story. Sierra’s life is the center. Hers is a character study of a growing mind learning to deal with society’s mores, even when unjust. A story about standing tall in the face of injustice, showing good character even when hurt, the difficulty of doing the right thing, and learning that few things are exactly as they appear on face value.
Zero Tolerance is not a girl’s story. Zero Tolerance is a story of due diligence told in words and tone middle grade kids and older will understand, appreciate and hopefully remember when it becomes their time to exercise it, maybe in a situation of zero tolerance.
Junior Library Guild Selection
Released June 1, 2013
Age 8 to 12
2013 by Margaret Ferguson Books, used with permission
Text copyright © 2013 by Claudia Mills
Margaret Ferguson Books is an imprint of Farrar Straus Giroux (an imprint of Macmillan Publishers)
**Zero Tolerance was inspired by a real zero tolerance explosion caused by a young middle grade student accidentally bringing her mother’s lunch to school . . . with a paring knife inside.
- Zero Tolerance by by Claudia Mills (US Only) (yabookscentral.com)