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.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Frank, Lucy. The Homeschool Liberation League. 2009. 279 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-8037-3230-8. This book is appropriate for grades 5 to 8, or ages 10 to 13, depending on reading level. (3 1/2 stars out of 4)

At some point in almost every middler’s life, he or she wants to be free. That freedom may revolve around parents who restrict their actions too much, schools or teachers who do not allow enough free thought or expression, or friends who do not allow enough individuality into their peer groups. Freedom is a fleeting and oversimplified concept to the young teen, as we adults know from our lifelong but often brief relationship with it. However, freedom is a powerful concept and goal, and it lights the path to our dreams as we imagine how we can get to do the things we want to do and avoid the things we do not want to do; i.e. how can I have English and Social Studies all day and not have to bother with those stinky math and science classes, because when I am an adult, I will not need them anyway (so I mistakenly thought all throughout school). But teachers know that all subjects are important, not necessarily for content, but for what the process teaches our brains, and frankly, 13-year-olds do not normally appreciate that type of long-term intellectual investment. Therefore, when I first started reading The Homeschool Liberation League by Lucy Frank, I was concerned for the main character, Katya, because I could see her mistake in thinking that freedom, and not learning, is the goal of education. We know that learning enables freedom, but Katya must learn her own lessons; fortunately, she does so both humorously and with some style.

On her way to her first day in eighth grade at Martin Van Buren Middle School, Kaitlyn Antonucci decides she cannot stay and goes home. Evidently, Kaity, who wants to be called Katya after her Russian camp counselor named her that last summer, has decided that she wants to be homeschooled. As Katya begins a journal as a method to justify her decision (Look! I did more writing on my own that I ever did at school; can’t I just stay home?), she ponders seventh grade in which she hid a lot of trouble from her parents: “I wondered if I dared put in something about my ‘bad attitude’ at school, my ‘acting out behavior.’ Explain how it was kind of hard to stop when so many kids liked me so much better that way. Admit that I was worried I’d get so good at acting dumb and stupid, it would no longer be an act” (14). Neither of Katya’s parents are college graduates, but they are receptive to her pleas and decide to go see the principal, Mr. Westenburg. Surprisingly, Mr. and Mrs. Antonucci start to understand Katya’s points, and they arrange to start homeschooling, with Katya helping at her mom’s salon in-between “classes.” Everything becomes complicated, however, when Katya’s mom gets serious about home schooling and Katya starts to feel the same restrictions she felt at Martin Van Buren Middle School. Additionally, life gets very interesting after Katya meets Milo, a sulky but very cute 14-year-old. Milo is also homeschooling but wants to return to school because of the rigors being a young, accomplished violinist with endless practicing and plenty of pressure/encouragement from his father. To explain her tenuous and often uncomfortable situation to her friends, Katya concocts a group to which she, Milo, and other homeschoolers now belong, the fictional Homeschool Liberation League. Through all of the problems and untruths Katya has woven around her life, she and Milo must find a way to pursue their dreams and be happy with their lives before they are separated from the things they love and forced to play by the rules that seemed to chain them to an unhappy life and bleak future.

I am always leery of a book in which the main character sulks and sulks until she finally gets what she wants, so it is refreshing when Katya must actually work for a living like the rest of us. Katya could have been an annoying, whiny character who is clever enough to fool the world, but that would have made her boring and predictable. Instead, she is a funny, resourceful, and occasionally curmudgeonly but charming young woman who is looking for herself but not seeing an appropriate model in any of the other archetypes at school or home. Katya lies often, but they are the kind of lies that the liar always thinks are more damaging than they are, and because she has a conscience, Katya always reminds us that she knows when she is wrong. Also, part of Katya’s charm is the way she ironically learns life’s lessons; i.e. her work with the elderly reminds her of her youth; meeting a boy helps her to meet herself but not lose herself; being forced to do uncomfortable things like work at Mom’s beauty shop helps her to see that comfort is not necessarily the goal, etc. I enjoyed The Homeschool Liberation League by Lucy Frank and I believe it is a great selection for the 5th and 6th grade crowd who like books with a humorous narrator like No Talking by Andrew Clements, Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis and Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko.

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Gold, Maya. Cinderella Cleaners: Change of a Dress. Scholastic, 2010. 209 pages.

Cinderella Cleaners: Prep Cool. Scholastic, 2010. 155 pages (3 1/2 stars out of 4). These books are appropriate for grades 4 to 7, or ages 9 to 13, depending on reading level.

I don’t know about you, but I am surprised that reality television has lasted this long. I must sound like my great-grandparents in 1955 claiming that “damn noise” called rock and roll wouldn’t last the decade. The reality genre has spawned its own cottage industry of B-grade stars and personalities, feeding other shows like Dancing with the Stars, so it feeds on itself like the paradoxical snake that eats its own tail. The most disturbing contradiction about reality shows is that the whole point we watch them is to experience the plight of Everyperson, but the subjects of the shows become famous because of their exploits, thereby nullifying their Everyperson status. What I like most about the two books that begin the Cinderella Cleaners series by Maya Gold is that main character Diana Donato does not become famous when she is brushed with fame; she does not taunt when she has the opportunity to flaunt. She remains an Everyperson whatever happens, and when she makes mistakes, she understands why and rectifies them for the right reasons. The bottom line is that I like Diana, and I think readers will too.

The first book in the Cinderella Cleaners series, Change of a Dress, sets up the series. Eighth-grader Diana Donato and her best friend Jess Munson attend New Jersey’s Weehawkin Middle School. Diana is furious because she has to miss the school play when her stepmother Fay insists she get a job, but fortunately, her father owns a dry cleaners and she can work for him. The store has a cast of colorful minor characters who occasionally pop in and out of the story; I can imagine future books featuring one or more of them in more prominent roles. Diana’s two favorite things are Broadway and acting, and when she is going through a jacket at the cleaners and finds amazing tickets and cast party passes to the hottest show on Broadway, Angel, featuring new hottie Adam Kessler (imagine a cross between Nick Jonas and Robert Pattinson), she desperately wants to go, even if it means “borrowing” a customer’s dress under repair. Diana must decide how to get to New York without her parents’ knowledge, get fitted for the dress, and hope against hope that the owners of the dress and tickets do not show up to ruin her dream night.

In the shorter second Cinderella Cleaners novel, Prep Cool, friend Will (and maybe—just maybe—a secret crush for Diana) gets his first musical gig at an exclusive local prep school party. He invites Diana and Jess to the party even though everyone there thinks they own the place (and probably do), and our middle-class heroines are out of their league. Jess meets a guy and immediately falls for him, and she entrusts Diana with her bag and her prized cell phone. Trouble ensues when one of the local female fashionista bullies sees Jess with the boy she wants. Revenge knows no lows to the villainous Brooke, and although Jess risks some embarrassment, Diana may be dealing with the end of her relationship with her BFF because of her mistake.

I like the Cinderella Cleaners novels for a few reasons. The action is not outrageous, it is just outside of the realm of the ordinary, in that netherworld between the very possible and the utterly fantastic. I like the main characters, and although many of the minor characters are little more than stereotypes, they may be developed in future books. Ms. Gold uses simple but effective visual images like the Empire State Building at night or the hectic, fly-by culture of the cleaners to spruce up the action, and it is an effective method to increase the reader’s connection to the North Jersey and New York City characters and settings. Also, Diana realizes throughout the two novels that although her life has troubles; i.e. her stepmom isn’t perfect, she must navigate the beginning of interest in relationships, mean girls at school occasionally taunt, her boss at the cleaners can be a challenge, etc., she is better off in her middle-class life than in many other seemingly glamorous lives. Diana accepts and embraces who she is and does not dream of being someone else more pretty, or more wealthy, or more famous like this week’s morally deficient Jon & Kate. Diana is comfortable in her own skin, although she continually has to prove it like every middler. I believe Maya Gold has tapped into a winning formula with the Cinderella Cleaners series; after all, not everyone wants to be a vampire or a werewolf, right? Like the Candy Apple books, this series will be great for reading over a break or at the beach this summer.

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