December 27, 2007


A Field Guide to High School. By Marissa Walsh. Delacorte Press. $15.99.

The Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary School. By Candace Fleming. Schwartz & Wade. $15.99.

Bullyville. By Francine Prose. HarperTeen. $16.99.

      There are so many major life events for which there is no guidebook. Every parent, for example, would love to have one for child-rearing – but none of the professed guides to this or that aspect of the parenting adventure combines real-world intelligence with the sort of what-the-heck sense of humor that parents must have to survive and prosper. And then there’s high school. Wow, does that need a guidebook. And now, Marissa Walsh be praised, it has one, and it’s hilarious. Okay, it’s not intended as a guide for every high-school student to follow; and it’s a novel, not a nonfictional book about how to handle this or that situation; but there’s enough truth and enough amusement in A Field Guide to High School so that freshmen really ought to read it before ninth grade – and eventually pass it along to their younger siblings. That’s part of the idea of the book, in fact: older sister Claire, super-popular high-school star and valedictorian, is graduating, and has put a lot of what she has learned (in class and out) into a guide for younger sister Andie, who is just about to start ninth grade. Claire is a great guide. In a section on social life called “Gilled Mushrooms Causing Sweating, Tears, and Salivation,” for example, she informs Andie, “Most likely you will not want to date one of the boys in your ninth-grade class. There will be fewer than five who are acceptable. And of those five, one will be ‘going out’ with someone seriously, one will be a player, and the other three will not know their asses (or yours) from their elbows. You will have a crush on a senior, as will most of the other ninth-grade girls. There will only be one who is crush-worthy and everyone will covet him, and he will only date a fellow senior.” Multiply these insights by, oh, a couple of hundred or so – involving classes, teachers, driving, the building, mean girls, and even a list of books (real books) that entering freshmen ought to try reading – and you have a short, easy-to-read guide that is packed with enough fun and, yes, wisdom so that any eighth-grader ought to pick up a copy.

      There’s wisdom in The Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary School, too, but it’s a somewhat more self-conscious book than Walsh’s and therefore gets a (+++) rating. Aimed at younger readers – fourth-graders, more or less – it’s intended as a modern version of Aesop’s Fables, with Candace Fleming using the occurrences of today to teach lessons that are intended as timeless. There are 23 short chapters in the book, with such titles as “The Boy Who Cried Lunch Monitor,” “The Bad, the Beautiful, and the Stinky,” and “The Problem with Being Ernest.” And each chapter ends with a true Aesopian moral: “He laughs best who laughs last,” “It is wise to prepare today for the wants of tomorrow,” “One good turn deserves another,” and so on. The approach is clever, but the connections between the stories and the morals are sometimes strained, and the format seems to control the narration, making the whole book seem artificial rather than upbeat and lively. Some of the goings-on are amusing, but some of the humor may be even too juvenile for fourth-graders: “What type of birds are found in Portugal? Portu-geese.” Moral: Sometimes there’s less fun than meets the eye.

      There is no fun at all in Bullyville, which gets a (+++) rating for ages 12 and above. Francine Prose lays on the angst thickly in this book. Bart, the narrator, lost his father in the collapse of one of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001; and at Baileywell Preparatory Academy – the Bullyville of the title – things get even worse. This is a school where everyone bullies or is bullied, and Bart gets his very own master tormentor in the person of Tyro Bergen, the sort of young sadist who makes you understand why Bart remembers reading books about Nazi concentration camps. The evil culture of the school makes no impression on Bart’s mother, who seems incapable of seeing anything she does not want to see (her willful blindness – or perhaps unremitting dimness – is a flaw in the novel). Bart comes to realize that he himself has impulses to be a bully; he also realizes that his way of getting even with Tyro doesn’t work; and he ends up making a connection with Tyro’s family in a touching and wholly unexpected way – but one that does absolutely nothing for the relationship between him and Tyro. There are powerful scenes in Bullyville, but the book is too preachy and feels too manipulative to have the sort of staying power that Prose surely wants it to have. It has little to teach about bullying in general, and its specifics are too carefully engineered to be fully credible even in a work of fiction.

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