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Laurie Morrison: Learning Differences + Expanding The Definition Of "Smart"

My upper middle grade novel Up for Air tells the story of thirteen-year-old Annabelle, a

competitive swimmer who feels great about herself when she dives into the pool...and not

so great about herself when she steps into a classroom.

The book opens at the very end of Annabelle’s seventh grade year, as she struggles to finish her last final exam. Annabelle’s mind goes hazy, blurring all the information she’s worked so hard to learn. She’s distracted by the ticking of the clock, the squeaks of desk legs, and the scrape of other people’s pencils scribbling answers in their test booklets.

Annabelle gets extra time on assessments, but she knows she still won’t be able to

complete her history exam. She needs to write an entire essay, but she keeps thinking about her history teacher’s unattainable expectations and imagining the frustrated comments he’ll scrawl in the margins, no matter what she writes.

Then the exam is over, and seventh grade is, too. Annabelle convinces her mom to take her to the pool, where she swims lap after lap, moving faster and faster as her mind quiets and her strong muscles take over. And when she gets out of the pool and a flirtatious

older boy mutters a comment about how good she looks in her racing suit, she feels

special and powerful. She feels like a completely different person than the girl who

walked out of that impossible exam just a couple of hours before.

Most of Up for Air takes place during the summer between seventh and eighth grade,

when Annabelle is invited to join the high school swim team, where she can keep up with

her older teammates in the pool but ends up in over her head socially and emotionally.

While the vast majority of the story’s events happen during Annabelle’s time away from

school, her academic experiences are central to her identity and, therefore, the whole

novel. Her experiences at school impact how she sees herself and everybody around her.

They influence how she responds to every compliment, every success, and every setback.

I taught middle school English for ten years, and Annabelle’s story is fiction, but it’s

rooted in the truth of what I saw many students experience. Annabelle has a learning

disability that she found out about in sixth grade, after she switched to a rigorous private

school and went through some testing because she was having trouble keeping up with

the intense workload.

Specifically, she has a processing disorder and low working memory, which means it’s

hard for her to retain information and demonstrate what she learns. She works hard and

seeks out extra help from teachers and tutors. She gets accommodations to help her

succeed. She misses fun activities with friends so she can spend more time studying. But

despite all these efforts, strategies, and sacrifices, she still ends up with grades that don’t

feel “good enough.” She’s embarrassed when her friends glimpse low scores on her tests.

She worries that her successful mom is disappointed in her lack of academic

achievement, and she fears she’ll lose her partial scholarship to her private school.

Up for Air is about a lot of different things: summer, sports, shifting friendships, blended

families, the experience of being an “early bloomer” physically, and the pressures of

having friendships with older teens. But at its core, it’s a story about where we find our

self-worth and how we tend to define ourselves based what we do well and what we have

trouble with.

A big part of Annabelle’s journey is coming to realize all the important ways in which

she is smart, even though she doesn’t feel smart at school a lot of the time. There are so

many things Annabelle perceives clearly, is curious about, and does well, and I worked to

make those strengths apparent to readers throughout the story, even before Annabelle

recognizes them herself.

Before Up for Air came out, a fifth grade teacher shared an advance copy with a student

who struggled with test-taking, and she sent me that student’s reflective writing about the

book. The student had only read a few chapters at that point, but she wrote that she

thought Annabelle was smart even though Annabelle didn’t think so, and that filled my

heart to know that this student saw Annabelle’s intelligence already, despite Annabelle’s

test-taking challenges and discouraging report card.

I hope that when kids get to the end of Up for Air and read the scenes in which other

characters validate Annabelle’s unique kinds of intelligence, they’ll be nodding along,

happy Annabelle can now see what they’ve already noticed. I hope that when

Annabelle’s mom comments that perhaps Annabelle’s school isn’t the right place for

her—which is very different from Annabelle’s fear that she might not be good enough to

be a student there—readers will feel as relieved and empowered as Annabelle does.

I think we often use the words “smart” and “intelligent” in very narrow ways. I’ve heard

kids say they’re “smart” or “not smart” when what they’re really talking about is whether

or not they get good grades and can easily demonstrate their intelligence in traditional

classroom or testing settings. I hope that kids who read Up for Air will appreciate all the

ways Annabelle is intelligent, and I really, really hope that her story might help them

appreciate different types of intelligence in other people and, ultimately, in themselves.

Laurie Morrison taught middle school English for ten years and now writes upper middle grade novels. She is the co-author of Every Shiny Thing and the author of Up for Air, which earned starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly and was a Junior Library Guild Selection and a Publishers Weekly Best Summer Read. Laurie’s third novel is due out from Abrams in spring 2021. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and she lives with her family in Philadelphia.

You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @LaurieLMorrison, or connect through her website.


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