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.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Yee, Lisa. Absolutely Maybe (3 1/2 stars out of 4)
A pattern in current YA literature growing in frequency and scope is the functional child caring for, responding to, rebelling against, and/or rejecting the dysfunctional parent. Well-regarded books like Carl Hiassen’s Flush, Linda Urban’s A Crooked Kind of Perfect, and Kirkpatrick Hill’s Do Not Pass Go, to name a few, feature perfectly normal kids who are burdened by their parents’ inadequacies. Sometimes, like in Urban’s very funny novel, the dysfunction is not the fault of the parent (dad suffers from autism or another similar social disorder), and the child feels compassion for the parent’s plight. Other times, however, as in Hiassen’s and Hill’s novels, parents make avoidable mistakes that place their children in perilous situations, whether the danger is real, like Dusty Muleman’s gangsters in Flush, or perceived, like the shame Deet feels in Do Not Pass Go when his father is arrested for drug possession. Lisa Yee’s Absolutely Maybe features another teenager trying to be normal in the shadow of a dysfunctional parent, but it is not derivative; it is a fresh and fun ride that features just enough discomfort to keep the story tense and dynamic.
Maybelline “Maybe” Chestnut is a failure in the eyes of her mother, Chessy, who runs a charm school in Kissimmee, FL, that caters to girls like the Fantastic Five, the meanest, prettiest girls in school. Since Maybe prefers Goth-lite makeup and brightly-dyed hair to beauty pageant chic, she becomes the butt of the Five’s jokes: “As I brush past the Fantastic Five one of them says, ‘Look, it’s the beast!’ Someone else adds, ‘Her hair is green today. She’s not a beast, she’s a troll’ . . . As usual, my mother pretends not to hear them, even though their laughter echoes in the building” (20). Chessy is addicted to alcohol and marriage, and she is about to make her seventh mistake with creepy Jake Himmler, assistant manager at the local Piggly Wiggly: “Ýou’ve heard of serial murderers? My mother’s a serial marryer. It’s a disease” (13). Maybe survives her negative home environment with the help of her two best friends, Ted, at whose house she stays when Chessy is too drunk to care for her, and Hollywood, so named because he films everything and has been accepted to USC film school. The resourceful Maybe finds a way to survive at home until fiancé seven tries to rape her; when Maybe screams and Chessy interrupts the scene, she accuses Maybe of impropriety as Jake drunkenly tries to blame it on Maybe. One thing Maybe is sure of is that she cannot live with a rapist: “‘It was already torture before Jake showed up. Now it would be impossible to stay’” (38). When Maybe explains her troubles to Ted, she comes to a necessary decision: she must leave and find her biological father in California (the one man Chessy never married). Along with Hollywood, the three of them embark on an adventure that holds surprises for everyone.
Maybe Chestnut is a winning character, a girl I hope my students admire. She is far from perfect, but her spunk, spirit, and resourcefulness lift the story to a level that feels very comfortable for young people seeking greater empowerment in their lives. When she needs to leave a dangerous situation, she leaves. When she needs to eat other people’s food to survive, she eats other people’s food, as distasteful as it is (sorry for the pun). However, when she needs to succeed, Maybe has an energy and humility that are both refreshing and exhilarating. Maybe builds relationships surprisingly well given her poor parental model, and she is an unpretentious survivor in a world of wannabes. Ms. Yee handles the rape scene very well: it is disturbing and shocking but not graphic; the content is not inappropriate for middlers. Absolutely Maybe is not the most realistic fiction I have ever read, and the characters’ luck factor does seem to be unusually high, but I was able to overlook those shortcomings because Ms. Yee’s novel is a quick-moving, well-written tale of a likable young woman’s quest to find her heritage and forge her future.

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