The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z

The Brilliant Fall of Gianna ZI read The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. several months ago, and now that my own daughter is in seventh grade and spent the first few months of the school year pulling together her own leaf project, this book has frequently been on my mind.

It’s a slice of life type story about Gianna, who is a natural cross country runner but not a natural academic. She’s waited too long to start working on her leaf project, and now she risks not being allowed to run in sectionals because of her grades. In the meantime, her grandmother is starting to lose her memory, although Gianna’s mother seems to be in denial about it.

Overall it’s a sweet story that’s very easy to identify with. The tension all comes from realistic things that feel huge and overwhelming to Gianna.

SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid


A lot of this story is about family. Gianna has an annoying younger brother who loves to make up puns. Her father runs a funeral home. He’s frequently funny and friendly, but his job means he’s constantly on call. When someone needs him, that’s his top priority. Gianna hates being driven to school in the hearse. Gianna’s grandmother is loving and wonderful, but her memory is starting to slip. She gets lost at the market. She misplaces things all the time. Gianna’s mother, stressed out and serious, is in denial about her mother’s memory loss. She’s not really ready to handle the reality of her mother’s failing health.

I recognized a lot in Gianna’s family, even though I haven’t been in exactly the same situation. I could see myself in her mother, and not always in totally flattering ways. Her parents are loving and well meaning, but work often takes precedence over the kids at any individual moment.

Gianna’s mother finishes her leaf project for her—it’s beautifully done, but Gianna isn’t happy. She wants to do it her own way, and she does. Gianna’s mom tries hard, but often projects instead of trying to really understand her daughter.


Gianna is good friends with Zip, who is a boy. At first it seems pretty platonic, but then some weirdness starts to develop. Gianna’s grandmother teases them about getting married. However, no romance ends up happening—they just don’t get to that point. Zip is a good friend, willing to help Gianna out however he can.

Gianna is friends with Ruby, but she’s a socially questionable friend. When Ruby’s pants split at school, Gianna is afraid the risk of standing by her is too great. Ruby goes home to change, and while she’s home her grandmother dies.  Gianna, having dealt with death as the daughter of a funeral director, figures out how to be there for her friend in the end.


Only Ruby’s grandmother dies, but there are a lot of insightful and touching thoughts about death and grieving. Natural death is an underlying theme of the book.


Gianna is major rivals with blonde and sparkly Bianca. Gianna looks down on Bianca as “not a serious runner” because she wears shirts with sparkly letters and always worries about how she looks. Bianca knows that Gianna stands in the way of her running at sectionals and sabotages her project so Gianna won’t be able to run, allowing Bianca to take her place. It’s not a particularly nuanced rivalry—they’re both pretty nasty to each other, and they never really see much redeeming in each other. It feels similar to some of my memories of the politics involved in being a 7th grade girl, though.


The leaf project runs through the book, so being in nature is a recurring theme. Robert Frost and his poetry are also a recurring theme. Gianna loves to draw, and she sees the world around her in artist terms. It makes you want to be there, walking in the woods or wandering the market.

Attention Deficit Disorder

Gianna isn’t diagnosed and isn’t on medication or anything, but she has major issues with focus and staying on task. It looks a lot like the ADHD I see in kids around me. She struggles in school, not because she isn’t bright but because school isn’t really designed for kids who deal with the world the way she does.


Gianna’s grandmother is very Italian. She speaks Italian and loves to cook Italian food. She seeks out the people in the market who also speak Italian. Gianna lives in Vermont, very close to Canada. In fact, they frequently go to a market in Canada. Gianna can speak some Italian and some French.

Other Stuff

There’s a lock down drill at school and one of the students says a joking throwaway line about someone shooting up a rural Vermont school. I doubt that joke would be made today.


I think most tweens will easily identify with Gianna and the things she’s dealing with. It’s full of emotions that are very real and relatable. I’d recommend it for ages 10 and up, primarily because I think younger kids won’t as easily identify with some of the issues Gianna deals with. There’s no reason a younger kid couldn’t read it, though. Although it has a female protagonist, I think both boys and girls will relate to Gianna. It’s a good book for fans of the Anastasia Krupnik books.


The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. by Kate Messner
Published in 2009 by Walker Books
Read on Kindle

Winner of the 2010 E. B. White Read Aloud Award for Older Readers


Speak Your Mind