A Self-Sufficient Kid Finds An Unexpected Silver Lining In 'Best Plan'Lauren Morrill's new YA novel follows 17-year-old Maritza, who's used to taking care of herself. But when she lands with a foster mother who truly cares about her, it turns her life upside down.
There are a million books out there about intelligent young people who overcome insurmountable odds and triumph over adversity, all on their own. These far outnumber the books about young people that start out this way. I was happy to find that Lauren Morrill's Better Than the Best Plan is one of them.
17-year-old Maritza Reed functions perfectly well on her own, despite having a mother who is focused more on her metaphysical life path than she is on being a responsible parent. Maritza herself is a straight-laced young woman with good grades and a solid work ethic, who sees her mother as more of a cautionary tale than a role model.
At the end of Maritza's junior year, Mom pops off to Mexico to chase her latest dream (in the guise of something that sounds like a spiritual MLM scheme) ... and doesn't come back. It's not really a big deal; Maritza will be 18 in a few months, and many aspects of her life are improved without the constant chaos of her mother's presence. But as time drags on, she does begin to worry that her part-time job won't be enough to cover the rent.
And then Social Services steps in, prompted by some red flags spotted by a guidance counselor at Maritza's school. Legally, she's still a minor, and significant parental absence is technically abandonment. Since Maritza has no relatives, she ends up in the home of the woman who fostered her when she was a baby. Until now, Maritza knew nothing about this woman, or her own history in the foster system. But seeing no other choice, she decides to give the new living situation a shot.
The book opens up with a beautiful prologue that leads up to the moment Maritza's hippie mom flies off with no thought of consequences, and then Chapter One begins with a complete shift in verb tense. It's no secret that I'm not a huge fan of the present tense narrative, but Morrill skillfully and purposefully completes the jarring tonal shift here, setting the stage and clearly defining Maritza's life before and after.
The new place is in upper-middle-class, suburban Helena Island, Fla. It's not so far removed from Maritza's previous home in Jacksonville that her best friend can't come visit, but the lifestyle here is miles away from anything she's ever experienced. It's filled with tennis courts, country clubs, sandy beaches, and a cute-but-troubled Boy Next Door — not bad at all.
For the first time, Maritza is in a safe place with fully-invested foster parents who genuinely care about her well-being. This affords her the luxury of being able to wonder about who she really is, deep down. Somehow, overly-capable Maritza must now be brave enough to open up and let other people worry about her, and even love her.
While Better Than the Best Plan does touch on some difficult subjects, it doesn't dwell on them. In this era of Tough-Topic YA, reading this book was like going on summer vacation. Morrill could have led Maritza down a far more emotionally traumatic and gut-wrenching path, but she didn't. Instead, the book reads more like a fun teen summer adventure. The romance is warm as the Florida sun, Maritza's soul-searching is heartfelt, and the story's resolution is both satisfying and well-earned.
Alethea Kontis is a voice actress and award-winning author of over 20 books for children and teens.