Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban (4 out of 4 stars!)--
I rented a movie recently called Little Miss Sunshine about a girl who wants to compete in a kids’ beauty contest. For those of you who haven’t seen it, the movie is at times very funny, but it is at times dark comedy at best. Thankfully, A Crooked Kind of Perfect by new novelist Linda Urban does not contain the morbidity and questionable behavior of Little Miss Sunshine, but it does share the award-winning movie’s most important themes: being different in a world of conformism, living with and dealing with dysfunctional family members, and growing up in a world that cannot be planned and predicted.
Zoe Elias is almost 11, and her dream is to play the piano at Carnegie Hall. But things do not always go as planned for Zoe, and the piano her dad was supposed to buy becomes an organ, the Perfectone D-60. Mrs. Elias is a state controller and is hardly ever around. Mr. Elias has great trouble around people and has a form of autism or other social disorder that disallows him from comfortably leaving home and interacting with people: “Dad is not supposed to go shopping by himself, but sometimes he gets all worked up about how he should be able to go shopping like everybody else. And then he gets to the store and there are lots of people around and if it is noisy or there are flashing lights . . . my dad gets real jittery” (14). The organ comes with six months of lessons from Mabelline Person (“pronounced Per-saaahn”), which is better than using the paper keyboard her last teacher gave her, but not by much. When Zoe loses her best friend to a richer, more popular girl, she must bear the ultimate insult from her former friend: “‘You can sit with us until you find a new best friend if you want’” (29). Just when Zoe feels loneliest, however, she discovers awakening adolescent emotions and an attraction, or more like the beginning of an attraction, to another loner, Wheeler Diggs, who befriends Zoe’s father because of his family’s dysfunction: “I laugh again . . . Wheeler laughs, too . . . And Wheeler’s laugh sounds like singing” (172). Zoe can not achieve her dream of becoming a prodigy like Vladimir Horowitz on the Perfectone D-60, but she does earn the right to compete at the Perform-O-Rama and gauge her skills against other organists if her dad can overcome his phobias long enough to drive her there.
I enjoyed A Crooked Kind of Perfect on many levels. It addresses an important theme in current realistic fiction, parental mental illness, with grace and humor, and although therapy does seem conspicuously absent in Leo Elias’s life, the reader never feels danger from him, only a healthy amount of frustration and compassion. Ms. Urban speaks in a very authentic 10-year-old voice, and like one of my other favorite female protagonists, Gilda Joyce, Zoe is all at once funny, clever, pathetic, hyper, thoughtful, and histrionic, just like almost every other middler I teach. Finally, the message of the book, that feeling different is OK, that working towards a goal has value regardless of the goal, and that the journey to adulthood is made in baby steps that only make sense in hindsight, hits home and resonates with the reader. I look forward to more novels from Linda Urban; A Crooked Kind of Perfect isn’t perfect, but it’s close.


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