February 2006

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Queens of Cool

In her new novel The Queen of Cool author Cecil Castellucci raises an interesting premise: what if everything that made you cool suddenly seemed deadly dull? Is it enough to be the girl that everyone else thinks is awesome or do you have to actually feel that way about yourself? In other words, if the local definition of cool is boring, will you still want to be cool?

It seems, on the surface, to be kind of a silly problem. After all these are serious times and there are serious issues at hand with everything from lost WMDs to the Supreme Court to bird flu. Is being cool something that anyone needs to worry over (or read about)? The sad truth is that fitting in is all that anyone in junior high and high school thinks about. Sure, there are those few brave souls who are actually committed to their studies (and have decent teachers), but by and large the teenage years are all about being like everyone else. You may want to deny it (you may be insisting right now that you didn’t care what anyone thought when you were sixteen) but I bet you can still name all those girls who always wore the right thing, had the right makeup, had the right hair and dated the right guys. You know who they were and you hope they are fat and miserable right now. It’s okay, I’m right there with you.

In Castellucci’s case, the queen is Libby Brin and she is everything that everyone else wants to be. She seems to have it all together and even though she doesn’t care about anything or do anything or accomplish anything, pretty much everyone in her high school wants to be her friend. And then, for no particular reason, Libby begins to question just what she is doing. She is bored, horribly bored, and even worse, her friends are boring. There is nothing in her precious pampered life (do you hear me Paris Hilton?) that interests her in any way at all. Spontaneously, she signs up for an internship at the L.A. Zoo. That’s where she finds herself spending large quantities of time with Tina and Sheldon and learns that not only does she not have much of anything in this life figured out, she is not all that impressive to anybody outside her high school universe. In fact, Libby learns that she just might be incredibly uncool, and her old friends are all pretty pathetic too. The big question is whether or not she will forge out on her own into unknown territory or go back to what is easy and comfortable. The fact that her parents are facing a similar crisis of the heart is just an added bonus, and a nice addition on the part of Castellucci. (I hate it when the parents are cardboard characters -- that is so Beverly Hills 90210!)

I like the way that Cecil Castellucci writes, her characters are always believable and interesting and even the ones you don’t like (in this case that would be Libby’s friend Perla) are never stereotypes. They might be jerks and idiots, but they are the kind you like to read about, and proof that Castellucci is committed to crafting as full a story as possible. I read and adored her first book, Boy Proof, last year and since then have spent some time reading her online journal. I like her fiction and I like reading about her life. Cecil Castellucci is the real deal -- a talented writer who is just at the very beginning of making her mark in the young adult publishing world. She manages to both crack me up, and make me think, and The Queen of Cool is another sure winner from this very talented author.

I was quite pleased to receive a copy of Audrey Couloumbis's The Misadventures of Maude March recently. I’ve been a fan of westerns for a long time, back to when I read my first Sacketts novel by the legendary Louis L’Amour. But westerns have fallen out of favor over the years and all too often get shuffled into some weird genre black hole that no one seems to visit too often. What I loved about Maude March is that it stays true to the genre’s roots -- horses, gun fights and bank robberies all make an appearance -- while introducing two excellent female characters. Maude and her sister Sallie are strong willed and determined to get to Independence, Missouri, and find their long lost uncle. All the difficulties they run into along the way just make them work harder to complete their journey. The fact that Maude somehow develops a reputation as an outlaw along the way just makes it all that much more interesting.

Couloumbis starts Maude March out with a bang, literally, and hardly gives her characters a moment to stop and catch their breath in the ensuing pages. The girls are orphaned, farmed off to some well meaning neighbors who think an early marriage is the answer to everyone’s prayers, and then hit the road in search of personal freedom. In the midst of all the exciting adventures, Couloumbis makes it clear that the sisters have few options. They must find their uncle in order to avoid marriage to someone Maude barely knows. They are completely dependent upon the kindness of strangers because they are girls and they are alone. Their decision to pass as boys only ratchets the action up another notch, and sends the story in all sorts of fun directions.

I had a soft spot for Maude March as soon as I saw the fun jacket artwork and the very cool endpapers with all of their period advertisements. I wanted the book to work and was relieved that it was so well done. I’m sure that Couloumbis will return to these characters as their developing story is irresistible. Maude and Sallie are not going to be satisfied wearing skirts and taking orders now that they have tasted freedom on the prairie, and I’m looking forward to what they try next.

Shifting gears a bit, in The Weight of the Sky, Lisa Ann Sandell has crafted a novel in verse about a high school junior who is overwhelmed by all the choices she must make about her future. This would be a fairly typical situation for any sixteen-year-old except Sarah is also Jewish and decides to find her way on a kibbutz in Israel the summer before her senior year. The decision makes for an engaging series of conflicts both within Sarah and with the people she meets, as she tries to figure out just where she belongs in the world and just how much her religion means in her daily life.

There were a lot of surprises for me in this novel. First, I generally do not like lyrical novels -- I like my novels written in complete sentences and keep poetry on an entirely separate shelf. I actually received Weight by accident -- thank heavens! -- and found that Sarah’s story is so engaging, that every aspect of her summer so quietly enthralling, that the format was fine. What really grabbed me though were the many quiet little dramas that Sarah engages in as she meets distant relatives, tries to understand the strangeness of her surroundings (she’s from Pennsylvania) and finds herself in a couple of romances along the way. Sandell does an excellent job of not shying away from the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict either. While this is certainly not a book about an American caught up in international intrigue, Sarah does have her own thoughts about carrying a gun for your country and finds herself surprised on more than one occasion by the armed conflict reality that she ends up living in. In more ways than one, this is a novel about growing up, and about realizing that there is more to life than how you look in you band uniform back home.

I have not seen many novels that tackle the subject of mainstream religion for teens, or the need to fit in from a perspective like Sarah’s. This is not a religious book, really, which might seem odd to say as it is about a Jewish girl in Israel, but there is no dogma here -- no proselytizing about the miracle of turning the deserts green. It’s mostly about the comfort you find surrounded by people who are just like you, on the smaller levels, like people who don’t question what you’re going to eat for lunch in the school cafeteria. And because it is about that most universal of needs -- belonging -- it has a very wide ranging appeal. (There is a night and day difference between this book and The Queen of Cool, but on some fundamental levels they are remarkably about the same thing, which is the sort of literary synergy that I just love.) The Weight of the Sky should be appreciated on many levels, but most significantly as a book about belonging in the larger world and giving yourself up to the longings you feel in your heart. It’s lovely reading and wholly and completely a book that belongs within the current times.

Finally, thirteen-year old Becky Cohen has a problem in Befiddled and she doesn’t think anyone is going to be able to help her with it. Becky loves the violin -- correction, she LOVES THE VIOLIN! She takes lessons at the local YMCA from a really nasty teacher and she dreams about one day having the money, or the luck, to get into a prestigious music school where she could really pursue her interest. Life at home is complicated as her mother is overworked and more than a bit exasperated with her very unorthodox daughter and at school, well, school involves gym class and gym class is hell on earth for Becky. In fact, life is all just pretty much one long drawn out disappointment and things don’t exactly looked like they’re going to improve anytime soon. But then, well, then one little thing after another starts to go right in Becky’s life and suddenly she has the chance to change her world; suddenly she can do anything.

Okay, here’s the thing: I like these kinds of books where awkward teenage girls learn to believe in themselves and achieve their goals and tell a few idiot adults off along the way. I was an awkward teenage girl (don’t even get me started on the nightmare that was Lyndon B. Johnson Junior High School), and I know just how messed up life can get when you are thirteen and have no prospects at all of ever getting your life together. But the thing is, if you don’t figure it out then, if you don’t start to believe that you can carve some sort of life for yourself out of what everyone else wants and thinks and demands, it’s only going to get worse. You have to have a plan in this world, you have to have a goal and you have to believe that you can accomplish it. As long as Becky lives at the whim of those around her, as long as the music teacher and her mother and her gym coach can all intimidate and belittle her, then she will never be able to have her dream of the violin; she will never have any dream at all. She’ll be bagging groceries for the rest of her life, I guarantee it.

Becky has to wake up and she has to kick butt and she has to play the hell out of that instrument. How she does that, and the very cool people who end up helping her (including her hysterical little brother), makes Befiddled a wonderful read for anyone who has ever suffered from a lack of self confidence. It’s hard to have it all together when everyone seems to have decided that you will never will and reading about how Becky discovers her own strengths is a nice little way of reminding all of us just how strong we can be as well. This is a sweetheart of a book and it gave me a lovely smile when I was done. It’s nice, when the good guys win sometimes. (And here’s hoping Pedro de Alcantara gives us more characters to root for in the future.)

The Queen of Cool by Cecil Castellucci
Candlewick
ISBN 0763627208
173 pages

The Misadventures of Maude March by Audrey Couloumbis
Random House
ISBN 0375832459
290 pages

The Weight of the Sky by Lisa Ann Sandell
Viking
ISBN 0670060283
304 pages

Befiddled by Pedro de Alcantara
Delacorte Press
ISBN 0385732651
183 pages