Natalie’s botanist researcher mom has been shutting herself away in her bedroom since summer, and it is now approaching Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas–all the traditional family gathering times. Her dad, a therapist, is trying to maintain a semblance of normalcy, cooking dinner and handling household tasks while continuing his professional job. For Natalie, interest in middle-school activities and friends wanes in the face of her concern for her mom and worry about her disintegrating family. Her dad (who curiously refuses to acknowledge his Korean heritage and who shuts down, whenever possible, all references to it) finds it impossible to discuss the situation with Natalie and instead arranges for her to visit another therapist.
On the school front, Natalie’s class is challenged by her dorky new science teacher, Mr. Neely, to explore using the scientific method to solve significant problems of their own choosing. She is predictably and totally disinterested in the project and unable to select a topic, until Mr. Neely suggests she enter an Egg Drop competition that offers a $500 cash prize to the winner. Suddenly Natalie sees a solution to her mom’s problem and seizes the initiative to solve what the adults around her seem to be unable to do.
Her mom’s big research project, before funding was discontinued, focused on the Cobalt Blue Orchid, a rare plant that flourished under toxic conditions after a power plant spill when nothing else survived. Thinking she can use the $500 prize money to take her mom back to New Mexico to see the flowers again and jolt her back to being her old self, Natalie enlists her best friend (and adds a new one) in her scheme. Acting on an imperfect knowledge of her mom’s situation (thanks to the adults refusing to tell her anything), she leads her team into all kinds of (sometimes unwise) adventures in pursuit of her goal. She also learns a lot about the changing nature of friendships and the importance of being, like the orchid, adaptable.
Although the main characters are seventh-graders, the writing is not puerile. Older teens should find the story interesting and relevant, particularly in its handling of the themes of depression and the non-communicative habits of parents who are afraid to trust their teens with too much serious information for fear they won’t be able to handle it. Friends don’t talk out their problems, ex-friends don’t talk out their problems, adults don’t talk out their problems–it’s a big mess of miscommunication that eventually gets sorted out by book’s end.
No sex, no offensive language, no violence, no controversial issues.