When I skimmed the jacket flap of Tempo Change, by Barbara Hall (Delacorte, 2009), about the teen whose “father is an indie rock icon,” two thoughts occurred to me. The first was Beige, by Cecil Castelluci (Candlewick, 2007). The second was Born to Rock, by Gordon Korman (Hyperion, 2006). Fortunately, I read past the flap and was rewarded with a story all its own—and one that really spoke to me.
This is exactly the sort of novel you would expect from Hall, who created the Emmy-nominated series Joan of Arcadia, about a modern teen who starts receiving messages from God. The dialogue is smart and snappy. The protagonist of Tempo Change is, like Joan, a snarky teen who doesn’t quite meld with her peers. But the core similarity is the shared theme of spiritual exploration—executed without a hint of preaching.
Blanche Kelly is, as I mentioned, the daughter of an indie rock icon. Duncan Kelly, however, left years ago to rekindle his muse in the South Pacific. Blanche’s only contact with him is through email, though at school she faithfully follows his advice: “Don’t be a joiner.” She’s succeeded in staying at the fringes, preferring to observe than to participate. She loves music but is hesitant to pursue it; after all, art hasn’t exactly done wonders for her family.
Then Blanche’s mother brings home a new boyfriend: Ed, not a musician but (yawn) a guitar salesman. At the same time, Blanche finds a stellar singer and drummer among her school mates. While she’s not, like her coworker and maybe-possibly crush Jeff, about to call it “a sign,” it’s enough to make Blanche do a 180. If her new band, the Fringers, makes it all the way to the big Coachella music festival, surely it will be enough to roust Duncan Kelly from his Pacific hideaway at last!
Of course, getting to Coachella isn’t quite that easy. And once the Fringers—and, yes, Duncan Kelly—actually make it there, it doesn’t go anything like Blanche planned.
Hall’s characterization stands out. All characters—both teens and adults—are three-dimensional, none wholly good or bad. Blanche’s mother has struggled with depression, alcoholism, and finances, but she’s a loving, invested parent active in her recovery program. Duncan is by turns the kindly, helpful father and the selfish, obsessed artist. Blanche is realistically naïve and critical of her mother, unable to understand how she could prefer owning a women’s clothing shop “for women who [are] tired of wearing clothes” and dating Guitar Guy Ed to the presumably glamorous life of a rocker’s wife.
What I really love about Tempo Change, though, and what keeps it from being the formulaic pop-culture-centric story you might expect, is Blanche’s relentless (though sometimes reluctant) questioning of the fuzzier aspects of existence. How do we find our path in life? Where does artistic drive come from? Is there such a thing as divine intervention, or is life just a series of very human choices?
Hall provides no concrete answers but plenty of entry points for discussion. Joan’s mother surrenders the things she can’t control to a higher power in her twelve-step program. The Fringers’ singer sees an apparently divine vision while stranded in a snow storm. The prayers Blanche and her band mates idly tossed into the box at the New Age shop seem to be coming true. Even Blanche, ever a skeptic, makes a key decision based only on a dream.
Ultimately, this thoughtful novel of spiritual exploration has more in common with Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s Leap of Faith (Dial 2007) or Pat Schmatz’s Circle the Truth (Carolrhoda 2007) than with the books conjured by the jacket flap. It will appeal to many readers of contemporary realistic fiction, especially those with a philosophical and/or artistic bent. Highly recommended for grades 6 and up.