Friday, September 26, 2014

Middle-Grade Review: The Agony of Alice

In getting ready for Banned Books Week, I was surprised that #2 on the top 100 banned books from 2000 – 2009 was the Alice series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. I’d heard of the books but never read one, so I decided to find out what the fuss was about. I did a little digging and found that of the 25 Alice books published to date, The Agony of Alice was the first one published (in 1985), so I requested it from my library.

Alice McKinley is eleven years old at the start of this novel, entering 6th grade – her last year of elementary school – in a new school in Silver Spring, Maryland. She and her father and 19-year old brother have just moved to a new town, a new house, and a new neighborhood. Alice is a little worried about starting over at a new school, but her most fervent wish is for a mother; Alice’s own mother died when she was just four years old.

Alice sets her sights for an “adopted mother” on Miss Cole, one of the 6th grade teachers, who seems to Alice to be just the kind of role model she’s looking for: she is beautiful, wears fashionable clothes and perfume, and seems to Alice like the perfect woman. Instead, Alice is assigned to Mrs. Plotkin’s class, a 60-year old, heavy teacher with no fashion sense at all.

The school year moves forward, as Alice agonizes over every little thing she does that seems embarrassing. She even makes a chart for herself, with Backward on one side and Forward on the other so she can track the things she does to move herself ahead…or behind. Alice makes some new friends, gets to know Mrs. Plotkin better, and gets reacquainted with an aunt, uncle, and older cousin she barely remembers.

So, why has such a sweet novel about the normal life of an 11 (and later 12)-year old girl been challenged and banned? Get this – for “honesty about the human body”! Have you ever heard anything so ridiculous? During the course of the novel, Alice worries about how to get a bra when she doesn’t have a mother, gets her period for the first time, and shares her first kiss with her first boyfriend. What do our preteen girls need from their realistic fiction more than honesty?

I loved this novel, and I loved Alice. In fact, I mostly loved the very thing this book has been banned for – its realism and honesty. Naylor clearly remembers what it’s like to be a young girl on the brink of becoming a teenager, worrying about how she appears to others and about growing up. I grew to like Alice so much that I wanted to read more and immediately went back to the library to sample one of the books in the series when Alice is an older teen. I chose Dangerously Alice (Alice is in 11th grade in this one) which I have been loving just as much (but be warned – more honesty here! You won’t have to look up why it’s been banned and it's more appropriate for older teens).

When I was a young girl, we had Judy Blume and Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret and Forever (two other frequently banned books!) to help guide us through those awkward years of growing up and to answer the questions we were too embarrassed to ask. We read and reread those books and whispered about them with our girlfriends. Girls today are lucky – they still have Judy Blume but they also have Phyllis Reynolds Naylor and Alice, the likable but very real character at the heart of the Alice series. If I had a daughter, I’d want her to grow up alongside Alice.

131 pages, Atheneum


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