Searching for Normal – CJ Darlington

Searching for Normal CJ Darlington
Searching for Normal by C.J. Darlington
Published by Focus on the Family Publishing, Tyndale on April 6, 2021
Genres: Fiction, Young Adult
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Six months ago Shay Mitchell’s life changed forever. Now she’s just trying to survive school bullies, drama class, and living with her Aunt Laura above the bookstore. No one, not even her new friends, knows her real story or the reason she’s living with her aunt in the first place.
When Shay learns the truth about her biological father, she jumps at the chance to meet him. This could be her chance! Maybe she’ll finally find the normal life she’s longed for―a life where she feels loved and wanted―you know, part of a real family.
This is the second book in a series that travels alongside four friends as they deal with teen life in Riverbend, Indiana. The novel inspires girls and young women to deepen their relationships with God and solve their problems in God-honoring ways.

Shay Mitchell’s life has fallen apart. The trauma of losing your mother before you ever knew her really never goes away, but Shay and her dad had built a life for themselves together. Then he died and she was shipped off her grandparents’, who were going through their own loss. Those competing losses didn’t work out well and they’d kicked her out and sent her to her aunt’s. And that’s where Searching for Normal begins.

Shay is an orphan, living with an aunt she doesn’t really know, kicked out by grandparents who don’t seem to love her, not able to pursue her favorite hobby, dealing with a new city, a new school, trying to make new friends, and avoid new bullies. It’s all a bit overwhelming.

As the story progresses, Shay finds healing in a new group of friends even as she struggles to adapt and deal with adversity. With a few shock revelations along the way, Searching for Normal takes readers on a character-driven, intensely-relational look at finding one’s identity and the importance of community.

Writing for a younger YA audience, C.J. Darlington manages to telegraph this message clearly while still allowing it to rise organically from the story. At times, this requires Shay to seem wise beyond her years—such as when she notices her grandparent’s coldness toward her stems from the loss of their son, her dad. At other times, it requires her to seem more childish than normal. Indeed, for much of the book I assumed that Shay was twelve or thirteen and not fifteen.

The struggle with any book written to a young audience that deals with deeply complex and messy themes is the ability to approach these themes appropriately, giving them their due weight while also acknowledging the age of the reader. It’s no different in Searching for Normal. Shay is dealing with the loss of both parents, the lovelessness of her grandparents, and issues surrounding adoption (to say any more would be to ruin a twist).

Any one of these would make material enough for a whole novel. By adding in so many issues, Darlington isn’t able to talk deeply about any of them. The adoption storyline—something dear to my heart, as I have two adopted children—was particularly rushed and, while providing the book with its twist, unnecessary to the plot.

The book’s heart is how Shay finds a new normal in her group of friends, who take her into their group and provide her with emotional support throughout the twists and turns. It’s this piece of the novel, this relational core—along with Shay’s developing relationship with her aunt—that makes the book worth reading.

Overall, Searching for Normal is a fairly typical, good quality young YA book. If you have a younger girl who loves horses, this book might stand out to them in particular. Younger YA fiction is sometimes a forgotten-about segment in Christian fiction and I’m happy to see Darlington filling that role here.