Middle-Grade Review: Billion Dollar Girl by Megan Shull

 

About This Book:

 

River Ryland is the girl everyone wants to be around. But this brave 13-year-old has a secret that’s getting harder and harder to hide: she lives mostly alone in a ramshackle, single-wide trailer with a mom who drops in and out of her life.

 

After a visit from Social Services goes horribly wrong, longing for security, River sets off on the run. Soon, a case of mistaken identity gives River a chance to live a life that she had never even dreamed. But, when her newfound safety is shattered, River discovers, against all odds—one in 307 million, to be exact—that life’s true jackpot isn’t anything that it seems.

A simultaneously heart-wrenching and exhilarating exploration of what we value, suspenseful and wise, Billion Dollar Girl is a deeply-felt reminder that we are inexplicably intertwined; a hopeful story of our times.

 

*Review Contributed by Karen Yingling, Staff Reviewer*

 

Complex tale of family and identity

 

River has lived her whole life with her single mother, Sunny, who is young and fun, but also very unreliable. Currently, Sunny hasn’t been back for days, and River is living alone in a decrepit trailer with little food. Her best friend’s mother won’t let her hang out with River anymore, and her school principal has informed her that she’ll be stopping by at 7:00 in the evening with a social worker, because it’s come to her attention that River needs help. Instead of getting this help, River takes all of the money in the trailer and sets off to buy a bus ticket to Great Bear Island. When she gets on the ferry to finish her journey, she meets the exuberant Cricket, who mistakes River for a 17-year-old named Liv whom she is supposed to meet so that the two can work at the lodge. Not knowing quite how to approach her aunt, Jemma, River goes along with the charade and is soon loving life on the island. Her cousin, Till, is fantastic, the girls are staying in a lighthouse, and her mother’s journals and clothes that she left behind when she ran away help River feel connected to the mother she loves, even if she is also disappointed in her. Things go fairly well for quite some time, but then Cricket and River make some bad decisions and need to be rescued. When Sunny shows up with a new boyfriend, River goes back to the mainland with her without question. During her initial bus trip, an older woman gave River a note, which she hasn’t read. When she finally does, she realizes it contains a lottery ticket… which is a winner of a huge jackpot. Of course, Sunny thinks this is great, and the two, along with her boyfriend, get involved in a life of living large while waiting to claim the winnings. Is this really the life that River wants, or does she really want to go back and live on Great Bear Island?
Good Points
My students really love reading about the kind of horrible situation that River finds herself in at the beginning of the book. My daughter explained this phenomenon well, saying that reading about children with horrible home lives made her middle school experience seem not so bad. There could have been a whole book about River’s experiences with living in the trailer and navigating school while trying not to be discoverered. There are lots of details about how she takes care of herslf and manages to elude authorities at school that will be appealing.

The trip to the island is also fantastic, and there are great details about all of the wonderful natural resources. Jemma and her family are understanding, and River learns about a whole new way of life. She is exposed to kind people who understand that she is not perfect and might make some mistakes, but who also help her through things. The mistaken identity is a goofy ploy, but one that I can see actual middle schoolers trying to pull off. I would have been more likely to just admit who I was!

There is also some interest in reading about lottery winners, which are main characters in books like Tashjian’s My Life as a Billionaire, West’s Lucky in Love, Haworth’s A Whole Lot of Lucky, Smith’s Windfall, McAnulty’s Millionaires for a Month.

While this is a very long book for middle grade (416 pages), there is a lot going on for readers who like more complicated stories. It seemed like several different books rolled into one and will be eagerly awaited by fans of this author’s Bounce and The Swap.

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