Tara Calaby

writer, editor & phd candidate

Tag: contemporary junior fiction

Review: Boys Beware – Jean Ure

Boys Beware book coverBoys Beware is not a particularly realistic novel. Generally, parents do not leave two twelve-year-olds and a thirteen-year-old in their own flat to fend for themselves for eight weeks. Even if their aunt is downstairs, it isn’t exactly an advert for good parenting. Or good sense, for that matter!

Of course, such pragmatic observations are of no interest at all to this book’s young audience, for which it serves as a wonderful wish-fulfilment fantasy. For the age group Boys Beware is aimed at, nothing could seem more exciting than getting to live on your own for a couple of months. No doing what you’re told. Eating whatever you want. Holding unsupervised parties. Fantastic!

As the title indicates, however, Boys Beware isn’t just about three sisters living by themselves. Largely, it recounts the endless quest of Emily and Tash to meet boys and capture them make them their boyfriends. There’s also a lot of time spent discussing their sister, Ali, who they feel is a hopeless case when it comes to making the most of herself and finding her own boy toy.

The best thing about Boys Beware is easily the wonderful first-person voice of Emily. It really makes the novel stand out from other books with a similar focus. Chatty, slangy and completely believable, the narrative is just spot on. Tash and Ali are also great characters. I really enjoyed Emily and Tash’s relationship – with the occasional short-lived tension quickly smothered by their genuine supportive friendship – and the clever characterisation of Ali. The book is very much told from a flawed perspective, and this is why Ali works so well. The reader can see her assets, but her sister, the narrator, struggles a little!

Boys Beware is a fun novel that should be enjoyed by middle grade readers – and by older readers looking for a quick and entertaining read.

Review: Absolutely Normal Chaos – Sharon Creech

Absolutely Normal Chaos book coverAbsolutely Normal Chaos is a lightly-styled novel, with a deeper message about family and belonging. Its protagonist, Mary Lou, has a strong voice, which is emphasised by the narrative being presented in the form of a journal. Her perspective is pleasantly flawed, and the reader views the other characters through her eyes. This is most obvious in the case of Carl Ray, who is represented in an ever-changing manner throughout the book.

Sharon Creech has a capable writing style and Absolutely Normal Chaos was an easy enough book to read and keep reading, but I’m afraid I came away from it with no real feelings about her universe or the events the characters were involved in. I didn’t care enough about any of the characters to feel any emotion for their disappointments and successes, which meant that I read the novel on a very surface level. I enjoyed the budding romance between Mary Lou and Alex in the opening stages of the novel, but quickly grew disinterested, and found a few aspects of the plot a little melodramatic.

There’s nothing really wrong with Absolutely Normal Chaos, but there also wasn’t anything in it that really grabbed me, either. A light summertime read for middle grade readers who like diary-style fiction and who don’t mind an over-abundance of double-barrel Christian names!

Review: Graduation Day – Ann M. Martin

Graduation Day book coverI am a Sweet Valley girl rather than a Baby-sitters Club girl, but back in primary school, when the Baby-sitters Club books were first being released in Australia, I was still a very big fan. You used to be able to get the new one every few months in the Scholastic school book clubs, and I built up a small collection of the first dozen or so books due to this. That was around the time I got into Sweet Valley High, though, and I outgrew the Baby-sitters Club not long after I started reading them. Still, for that short period in time, there was that wonderful series of books that told primary school children that they could babysit tiny children and earn money – even though they were only tiny children themselves! Okay, so perhaps it wasn’t very realistic…

It’s a long time since I last made any concerted effort to read the Baby-sitters Club titles. I picked up Kristy’s Great Idea at a library book sale a couple of years back, and was quite disappointed upon re-reading it. And then I discovered this, the final ever book at another library book sale, and decided it would be good to see how everything concluded.

Unfortunately, as a conclusion, Graduation Day is rather underwhelming. In one sense, it’s nice that the characters are still true to their beginnings. In another, however, it feels like very little has changed since the first couple of dozen books, if not since the very beginning. It really seemed like the characters were still dealing with the same-old same-old problems and emotions and, although I could see that the time machine and multiple perspectives were intended as a tribute, to me it felt a little forced and bitty. All of the old club members were there, but ones like Dawn were barely present at all.

The thing that most irritated me about Graduation Day, however, were the fonts used to mimic handwriting. These were okay when they were legible, but a lot of the time, they weren’t! I didn’t read Jessi’s chapter at all, because the writing was just plain ridiculous, and had to skip a few others as well. Handwriting fonts are cute when they’re easy to read (like Dawn’s, for instance), but when they’re not, they’re frustrating and a waste of a reader’s time.

It’s sad that the Baby-sitters Club didn’t go out with greater fanfare than Graduation Day allowed. But everything has to come to an end eventually, and at least Kristy, Mary Anne, Claudia and Stacey were given a proper good-bye.

Review: Passion Flower – Jean Ure

Passion Flower book coverFor a novel aimed at a middle grade audience, Passion Flower is surprisingly dark. Absent (emotionally or physically) and negligent parents seem to be a staple of modern Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction, but Jean Ure takes it to extremes here. At first, Stephanie and the Afterthought (sister Sam) just have to put up with their parents’ separation and their father moving south to Brighton. But then their mother decides she needs some time away from them and heads abroad to Spain, sending then to stay with their irresponsible father. While initially this involves him feeding them junk food and leaving them to fend for themselves, it quickly evolves into something a lot more scary and dangerous. It becomes a bleak account of just how irresponsible and selfish a parent can be.

I think I would be fine with this if Passion Flower were an ‘issues’ novel, or even if there were something reassuring for readers at the end. Instead, however, it’s packaged as contemporary fluff, with a cartoon cover and a light-hearted blurb, and even reads as such for a good portion of the book. Due to this, I wasn’t really sure what to make of it.

On the upside, Ure’s character voice is great and the first-person protagonist, Stephanie, is a likeable and believable character. The Afterthought is also very enjoyable and the two sisters have a realistic relationship. I also liked the background presence of Stephanie’s best friend, Vix, who provided a link to normality.

Passion Flower is a quick read with a strong voice – but it packs a punch that younger readers may not be expecting.

Review: Angel Cake – Cathy Cassidy

Angel Cake book coverI’m a fan of Cathy Cassidy’s books. She’s similar to Jacqueline Wilson in that her characters come from diverse backgrounds and often belong to non-nuclear families and families with financial difficulties. Angel Cake is no exception. Its protagonist is Anya, a young girl who has just arrived in Liverpool from Poland. Her father has brought the family to England to make a better life there, but the reality is different from Anya’s dreams and the financial climate means that their family struggles to survive in their new home.

Cassidy’s choice to write about a Polish character is particularly important given current levels of ill-feeling about EU immigrants in the UK – with Polish workers seeming to cop the brunt of such sentiments. It’s great that young readers are shown Anya’s story and the difficulties experienced by immigrants in their quest to settle into a new home, because it provides an alternative to this kind of negativity.

Despite her Polish background, however, Anya is very easy for the reader to identify with. She has a quiet presence in the novel, but her concerns are those of many teenagers her age – forming friendships, spending time with family and taking steps towards her first romance. I particularly enjoyed the strong relationship that Anya has with her family. She is close to her younger sister and her parents are loving and supportive.

Anya’s friends are not quite as well-developed, and I found that Frankie and Kurt felt very flat to me. I was also a little disappointed that Frankie’s happily-ever-after largely involved her losing weight and changing her eating habits to match those of a boy; this wasn’t the kind of message I expected to find in a Cathy Cassidy book. Dan is more three-dimensional than Anya’s other friends, but I still felt like there was something missing. It seemed almost as though there needed to be a deeper insight into who he is.

In fact, there is a level of shallowness to Angel Cake that makes me think it’s best suited to the tween market. Things are a little too simple for older teens to find the story entirely convincing. Those who belong to the right age group should love it, though, and it’s great to see an immigrant’s story being told in mainstream youth fiction.

Review: Diary of a Would-Be Princess – Jessica Green

Diary of a Would-Be Princess book coverDiary of a Would-Be Princess is an enjoyable work of junior fiction with a personable and realistic protagonist. Jillian is spirited and headstrong, but she’s also extremely kind – a trait that becomes more and more apparent as the book goes on and she gathers her growing group of grade five outcasts. Her voice is very strong and is pleasantly consistent throughout the novel.

The book is structured as a year-long journal that Jillian and her classmates are required to keep as an ongoing assignment in school. This allows for my favourite part of Diary of a Would-Be Princess – the short comments from Jillian’s teacher, Mrs. Bright, at the end of most weeks. These are perfectly reminiscent of the type of comments I used to receive on similar journals that I wrote back when I was in school, and offer a good additional perspective on events.

The downside to the structure is that I felt like the book was one term too long. By the end, it felt a little like the same territory was being re-covered, just with a slightly different focus, and this coloured my overall opinion of the book somewhat.

Nonetheless, it remains a likeable work, with a message of acceptance and friendship that is capably hidden beneath accounts of everyday life in grade five. Jillian has grown in herself by the end of the novel, but she has also helped those around her to achieve their own successes, something that sets Diary of a Would-Be Princess aside from many other books with similar themes.

Review: Escape from Year Eight – Anna & Mary K Pershall

I picked up Escape from Year Eight when I saw it in the library because I remembered reading the second book in the series and not hating it. I also didn’t hate this book – but I’m afraid I can’t really say that I liked it either, unfortunately.

I could deal with the wishy-washy plot and supporting characters, but there were a few messages here that I didn’t find appropriate for the young readers it’s aimed at. Firstly, there’s a pervasive anti-fat thread within the novel. Kaitlin’s mother used to be overweight, but now seems obsessive about staying extremely thin, to the point of not having anything remotely fattening in the house. Kaitlin herself freaks out at the idea of eating anything fattening at all, to the point of pushing aside a lunchtime cheeseburger after only a few bites. What’s more, one peripheral character, Simone, is present in the book only to be mocked for her weight and dedication to her study.

There’s also ample use of terms like “spaz” (including have the love-interest do “a jerky little dance like a spastic person”) and “retard”. I’m not trying to suggest that year eight students (or eighth grade students, in this case) don’t use terms like that, but I don’t think that kind of obnoxious and insensitive behaviour needs to be presented in fiction as being normal and okay.

Finally, the authors touch upon the topic of mental illness. Leon’s mother is portrayed as having ongoing issues that mean she struggles as a parent and talks to inanimate objects. She is fairly sympathetically portrayed – although this is limited by the way the kids all talk about her – and it is more the exploration of Leon’s own issues that struck me as a little naïve. We’re presented with a boy who doesn’t talk for a couple of years, who seems to have suicidal ideation, who points guns at people and who hears voices, and then we’re told that being sent to an alternative school in a big city is the only way his parents and the authorities are trying to help him.

Ultimately, though, Escape from Year Eight wasn’t for me because I just couldn’t like its protagonist. Kaitlin is petty and shallow and often downright cruel. She goes along with bullying and even participates in it, without showing any real signs of learning from her mistakes. She is probably quite realistic, in this sense, but that doesn’t mean I want to read about her. So no, I didn’t hate this book, but unfortunately I didn’t really enjoy it, either.

Review: Hot Ticket – Tracy Marchini

Juliet Robinson feels like the only sixth grade student at John Jay Junior High who is yet to receive a hot ticket – a card awarded for doing something judged to be cool by the anonymous ticket dispenser. Determined not to be remembered for that dubious distinction, she embarks upon a quest to discover and reveal the student (or teacher!) behind the tickets and to stop their distribution for good.

Hot Ticket is an extremely fun novel for younger readers. It’s been a while since I’ve read a book that has felt so perfectly pitched towards an audience. I would have lapped this up in upper primary school – and loved every moment of it as an adult as well.

One of the things that makes Hot Ticket work so well is its great cast of characters. In Juliet, Tracy Marchini has created an entertaining, and yet realistic, protagonist. She is clumsy, overly-spontaneous and often thoughtless, but it is such fallibility that makes her so easy to identify with. She’s also creative, tenacious and quick to attempt to right any wrongs she may become aware of, and I think it would be difficult for any reader not to like her. She has an incredible energy that’s very well portrayed.

The supporting characters are similarly well drawn. Lucy is the perfect foil to Juliet’s bold nature, providing a little calm where needed. She is definitely given a personality of her own, however and, although she isn’t as large on the page as her best friend is, she’s very likeable nonetheless. Crammit is great as the former victim of Juliet’s loud mouth turned friend (and possibly more). Any hint of romance is perfectly played out for the young audience of the book, which I definitely appreciated. I’m not a fan of junior fiction that shows kids acting like teenagers or adults when it comes to romance.

The best thing about Hot Ticket, however, is the plot. It’s a mystery concerned with exactly the kinds of things that its audience cares about. It explores ideas of popularity and exclusion, of peer influence and self-esteem, and does it in a way that can’t help but hold the reader’s attention. There is no obvious moralising here, but there are good messages to be gleaned amongst the humour of the situations that Juliet gets herself into. Young readers will love Hot Ticket because they’ll care about its storyline and will be able to fit it into their own world. They’ll be able to understand Juliet’s frustration and anxiety because they’ll have experienced similar situations themselves.

The only negative for me was the fact that there were a few grammatical errors and typos within the text. The book wasn’t full of them, by any means, but there were enough for it to be noticeable.

Despite this, I would have no hesitation in recommending Hot Ticket to young readers. It’s wonderfully age-appropriate and just so much fun.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

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