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, September 14, 2011

Gray, Eva. Tomorrow Girls: Behind the Gates (Book One). Scholastic, 2011. 211 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-545-31701-6. This book is for grades 4 and up, or ages 9 and up, depending on reading level. This is also an excellent high-low selection for middle schoolers (3 1/2 stars out of 4).

During the Harry Potter craze, I feared a literary world that was forgetting the scientific and futuristic elements of science fiction. I felt better after reading M.T. Anderson’s Feed and Rodman Philbrick’s The Last Book in the Universe, but with the release of Behind the Gates, the first installment of the four-book series Tomorrow Girls by Eva Gray, it is clear that science fiction is alive and well. The immense cross-over popularity of the Hunger Games trilogy has created such an interest in the dystopia/scary future subgenre that it has finally filtered down to the 9-year-old crowd. Ms. Gray, who on the verso of my advance copy appears to be sci-fi author Suzanne Weyn, author of the solid, 2010 “scary future” sci-fi novel Empty, has written Hunger Games-lite, a suspenseful buddy tale about a group of kids who grow up quickly as they face challenges they think are larger than themselves. But instead of highlighting the political machinations that make Suzanne Collins’ work so engaging, Ms. Gray/Weyn simplifies the story and the setting, creating a much more accessible work that can appeal to not only a broader and younger audience, but also one that may be intimidated by a major novel’s length and appearance.

It is the near future and the world is a mess. Much of the South and Gulf Coast have been destroyed by hurricanes due, it can be assumed, to climate change. Fresh water is rare and meat is practically extinct. The United States is at war with a group called The Alliance that is in the process of invading Canada. Louisa and her BFF Maddie are two of the fortunate young people in this difficult new America. Since both of Maddie’s parents are fighting in the war, Maddie has moved in with Louisa and she is pretending to be her twin sister. Louisa enjoys the privilege of having two parents who, as doctors, still have lucrative jobs and can afford to send their children away to a “safe” boarding school, away from all threats. The Country Manor School appears to be that solution, assuring parents and children alike that their safety is paramount. When their cell phones, electronics, computers and even jewelry are taken, the children are assured it is “for their safety.” But Louisa cannot part with her locket, and its pictures of her parents and grandparents: “I reluctantly reach back to unclasp the locket’s chain. My hand trembles slightly. I can’t stand to part with this. It would be like giving away my parents—and my grandparents!” (36). This and other seemingly unreasonable demands and restrictions, like not being allowed to communicate with the adjoining boys’ school or anyone outside of the school, even their families, creates suspicion, especially in one of the girls’ new companions, Evelyn, who sees conspiracy everywhere. The three girls are thrown together with Rosie, a jock and alpha-type who at first seems caustic, but who grows on Louisa. The four girls are given survival skills classes and told they will be the leaders of something called the New Society. Maddie sees this New Society as an elitist group to which she would not even belong if she was not Louisa’s faux sister, but Louisa likes the idea: “It gives me a feeling of having a serious purpose. I’d never felt like that in school before” (71). However, it is clear that there is more to Country Manor School, and the mysterious, stern headmistress Mrs. Brewster, than meets the eye, and the four girls may be in more trouble than they have ever known in their mostly sheltered lives.

Years of experience working at B. Dalton and Waldenbooks taught me that genres are not truly popular and entrenched until they come out in pulp form. I could not be certain that vampires were entrenched when everyone asked for Twilight; I knew they were when Scholastic released their Vampire Plagues and Poison Apple series. Science fiction is clearly hot—it has filtered down to permeate every level. Pulp is not necessarily a bad thing: this work is no Harlequin romance, but its weaknesses due to an overemphasis on plot and simplistic character development are not fatal flaws, they are what makes the material more accessible. This is not a classic or masterpiece, but it is a very readable version of the latest craze in YA fiction for an important market segment, tweeners and pre-tweeners. I recommend Tomorrow Girls: Behind the Gates by Eva Gray/Suzanne Weyn even though it is derivative and reasonably predictable because those qualities are appropriate to its targeted level.

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