If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period
(2007) is a juvenile fiction book by Newbery Award-winning author Gennifer Choldenko. Kirsten McKenna’s life is falling apart: her parents are fighting for no discernable reason, her best friend, Rory, has abandoned her for the popular mean girl, Brianna, and she has gained thirty pounds in the last six months. Meanwhile, Walker Jones, one of only three black kids at an expensive private school and the son of single mother Sylvia, does his best to get good grades. A startling secret involving both of their families will either tear Walk and Kirsten apart or bring them closer together.
The book begins with a new school year. Initially, Kirsten is looking forward to school starting because her parents have been fighting all summer, and she has been stress-eating and gaining weight. Kirsten is slowly realizing that her best friend, Rory, is ignoring her in favor of hanging out with the popular kids, led by Brianna, a beautiful and mean blonde who enjoys tormenting everyone—including her supposed friends. On the very first day, Kirsten and Walk are both late for history class and are forced to go to school on Saturday to help the teacher move classrooms. While there, the first major conflict arises when Brianna steals the teacher’s wallet and plants it in Kirsten’s backpack. Rory claims that she saw Kirsten take the wallet, but Walk defends Kirsten, telling the teacher that she did not do it. Kirsten tells her mother what happened, and her mother tells the other girls’ mothers, which gets them in trouble.
Walk’s mother, Sylvia, is terrified that he might turn out like his cousin Jamal. Throughout the novel, there is a strong implication that Jamal is a drug dealer or something equally heinous, but by the end of the novel, it is revealed that Jamal sells soap to make money. He applied to the private school as well—and was accepted—but the scholarship was partial, and his family could not afford the $18,000 needed for the rest of the year’s tuition. Nevertheless, throughout the novel, Sylvia keeps a close eye on her son and does not tolerate rule-breaking. Meanwhile, Kirsten’s mother tries to convince her to go along with the popular kids, so they won’t pick on her. Unimpressed with that advice, Kirsten feels that only her brilliant chemist of a younger sister, Kippy, is on her side. She does not want to be friends with the popular kids, but she tries it.
One day, Kirsten’s mom takes her to a child psychiatrist to see if they can solve Kirsten’s weight problem. Even though she is eventually put on a diet and bullied at school for her weight, she cannot stop herself from sneaking food. She meets Dr. Markovitz and they discuss Kirsten’s homelife. She has a hard time making friends at school, she feels that her father is making fun of her every time he calls her brilliant because she’s ordinary, and her parents are constantly fighting and might get a divorce, and she does not know why. The meeting shakes her, and she refuses to go back for any more sessions.
Walk and Kirsten volunteer for an extra credit assignment and become friends. Kirsten is unhappy with her popular “friends” who make fun of her, so Walk invites her to eat lunch with him and his friends, Matteo (a Mexican American scholarship student, who is also a math genius), Jade (a girl who wears army fatigues to school), and Hair Boy (a weird kid). Kirsten’s mother is concerned that Kirsten isn’t sitting with the girls anymore and is instead spending time with the boys and Jade. Kirsten insists that they are all just friends and promises to bring them around so her parents can meet them. The only one who can make it is Walk. Kirsten’s mother reacts weirdly to him, Kippy takes to him immediately, and Kirsten’s father approves of him.
The next time an extra-credit opportunity comes up, more students take it, including Brianna and Rory, whose poor grades threaten their ability to participate in the talent show. It is revealed that all along, Brianna has been blackmailing Matteo—she only wants to take the extra credit so she can partner with him to steal his work. If he gives her his work, he will lose his scholarship and be expelled for cheating. If he doesn’t, she will accuse Matteo’s mother (a maid who works for Brianna’s family) of stealing and get her fired. In fact, Brianna has been tormenting his mother by blaming her for things that disappear or get broken. Kirsten hatches a plan to save Matteo from Brianna’s clutches. She arranges for Brianna to get caught stealing Matteo’s homework, and alerts the teacher. Once Brianna is caught, she gets in trouble and is not allowed to be in the talent show. Since Brianna’s mother was bankrolling the talent show, the show is canceled.
Kirsten accidentally learns a family secret while she is in the garage, sneaking snacks. Her parents have been fighting about the fact that Mac McKenna has an illegitimate son that he never told his wife about: Walk. Their financial planner mixed up accounts, and Kirsten’s mother found out that Mac has been sending Sylvia money and paying for Walk’s private school. Kirsten is stunned to find out that her new best friend is her half-brother, and she tells Kippy. Kippy calls Walk unexpectedly, telling him that they’re siblings. Walk rejects that idea, but he goes looking through his mother’s files and finds that the man she said was his father isn’t. He confronts Sylvia, who tells him the truth. Angry, Walk stops speaking to her, so his Aunt Shandra takes him to Burger King and tells him the whole story. He starts coming around to the idea and he stops avoiding Kirsten.
Kirsten and her father have a heart-to-heart discussion about Walk and they air some issues. Mac tells Kirsten that she is brilliant and that there are different kinds of brilliance other than mental sharpness: Kirsten has a good heart and the ability to bring people together and to make them feel loved. He relies on her to bring Walk into the fold—he wants to have a good relationship with all his kids.
The novel ends with all the characters at peace with each other, except for Brianna, who is still inexplicably awful. Throughout the book, the characters wrestle with issues of race and racism, sexism, bullying, and body issues.