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“I blinked back sudden tears. When JC came back to school, everything was going to be different. I’d not been besties with anyone else for so long; I didn’t know how, or where, to start” Serena. –Serena Says

Serena Says

by Tanita S. Davis
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Serena Says follows a sixth-grade girl named Serena as she navigates a changing friendship dynamic with her former best friend, JC. Now that she’s in middle school, Serena struggles to balance her many assignments and projects while watching her former best friend become closer with another girl. In addition, Serena must navigate meeting a new friend, Harrison, and opening up to her mom about her friendship struggles; but the main focus of the book is Serena’s emotional growth as she recognizes how she can be a better friend to others.  

Serena is a character that readers will relate to, as she tackles issues many readers will face in middle school—such as changing friendship dynamics. Serena admits to feeling upset that she becomes distanced from her best friend, and when JC chooses to hang out with Leilani, Serena desperately wants to “make JC like me as much as she had before.” Serena’s best friend, JC, is also empathetic, and though Serena’s feelings are hurt when JC starts spending more time with another friend, it is important to consider JC has faced a very difficult surgery and her life has changed drastically. After having a kidney transplant, JC has to take a lot of medication and limit her exposure to other people in order to keep her healthy. JC explains how she hates having to keep returning to the hospital: “I hate this room. I hate this place. I hate everything. I want to go home, but Mom and the doctor are making me stay here.” This helps Serena begin to understand why JC has been acting differently since her kidney replacement. Eventually, both girls are able to be friends again and even if their friendship is different than it was in the past, this shows readers that people grow and change, and sometimes people are struggling with things you don’t know about that affect their emotions and everyday life.   

Another theme in Serena Says is mental health, as Serena finds out that her friend Harrison’s brother is in a mental health hospital called New Vista. Serena initially is afraid to ask Harrison about his feelings about this, but eventually, she learns to be an empathetic listener. Serena explains that her mom works in New Vista and says, “At our house, the word ‘crazy’ is worse than a swear. Mom says it’s a term people use when they’re too lazy to do the hard work of understanding and empathy.” Serena is extremely sympathetic to Harrison and offers him support and ideas of how to reconnect with his brother after his stay in the hospital, advising him to do activities they enjoyed when they were young—like hiking.

The book has excerpts of Serena filming herself discussing her everyday life for her sister’s YouTube channel; however, these sections might be distracting for some readers because Serena goes on a lot of tangents during them. The overall message of showing empathy towards others, even when people we think are our best friends hurt our feelings, still permeates throughout the novel and is important for readers to see. Furthermore, younger readers who enjoy faster-paced novels or action stories may find this novel hard to get into, as the majority of the novel simply follows Serena at home or school, living her everyday life.  

An important message for young readers in this novel is that though Serena is sad about her changing relationship with JC, Serena is able to come to a mature conclusion about their friendship: “Even if we weren’t best friends, I was glad we could still be friends.” Serena also realizes that JC is struggling with her health in ways that Serena cannot truly understand. For instance, JC explains to Serena, “I’m the one who has to have blood tests and all of these pills, all the time, for weeks and months and years…I’m the one who can’t go outside, or my nanay [Mom] freaks and wants to make me wear a mask—even if I’m just walking in the YARD by MYSELF.” This helps Serena to understand why JC may be acting differently and leaves readers with an important message of showing empathy toward others, especially when you may not understand what it is like to be in their shoes.  

Though younger readers may have trouble getting hooked on Serena Says, the messages surrounding friendship, empathy, and personal growth are clear and vital for young readers. Serena and JC’s friendship is explored in-depth, but from Serena’s point of view, which may make it hard for some readers to sympathize with JC at all. Overall, readers around age twelve, like Serena, will likely be able to relate to her struggles with balancing school, work, and friendship.  

Sexual Content 

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Drugs and Alcohol 

  • Serena’s friend wonders if Harrison’s brother abuses substances. The friend says, “I wonder if [Harrison’s] brother did drugs, and that’s how he got put at New Vista.” Harrison’s brother is in fact a patient at New Vista, but it is not because of substance abuse. Serena learns that Harrison’s brother has “mixed-features bipolar disorder” and his doctors were struggling to find the right medication to help him feel better.  
  • Serena tells a story about a time when she was little and became extremely upset when she thought her grandfather was drinking a beer, but it was actually a root beer soda. Serena says, “Eventually, [Grandpa] gets us straightened out, and I understood that there’s a difference between an ADULT beverage and a root beer.” 
  • Serena talks with Harrison about their Red Ribbon Week which raises awareness about the negative impacts of drugs. Serena says, “I know people shouldn’t do drugs . . . some drugs are legal though.” Harrison exclaims, “Not all of them . . . The point is that drugs destroy lives.” 


  • Rarely, Serena and her friend, Harrison, call each other “dorks” endearingly.  
  • When discussing Harrison’s brother being a patient at a hospital, JC says, “Harrison Ballard’s brother is a psycho?” Serena immediately tells her that word is not appropriate to use.  


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Other books by Tanita S. Davis
Other books you may enjoy

“I blinked back sudden tears. When JC came back to school, everything was going to be different. I’d not been besties with anyone else for so long; I didn’t know how, or where, to start” Serena. –Serena Says

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