Word After Word After Word. By Patricia MacLachlan. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $14.99.
How to Survive Middle School. By Donna Gephart. Delacorte Press. $15.99.
Airhead, Book 3: Runaway. By Meg Cabot. Point/Scholastic. $16.99.
Making it through middle school seems to be one of the great struggles of childhood, based on the number of books written about how to do it. Some are serious, such as Patricia MacLachlan’s Word After Word After Word. This is a very simply written book, whose large type and brief length (128 pages) make it seem at first glance too easy for ages 8-12. But if the reading is simple, the ideas are not. The story is about an author named Ms. Mirabel who visits a fourth-grade class where Lucy and her four friends – Henry, Evie, Russell and May – are trying to cope with some big life issues. These range from the death of a pet to a new baby, a parent’s remarriage and an ill parent – all things that can affect life anytime, but that seem especially overwhelming for the sensitive fourth-graders. The coping strategy of Ms. Mirabel – and clearly of MacLachlan, speaking through her – is writing. “Sometimes writers write to solve a problem, to answer their own question,” says Ms. Mirabel, and this strikes a chord with these trouble-laden children, who are soon jotting down thoughts in prose and poetry. “We all have a place where we begin,” explains Ms. Mirabel, and each child begins with what he or she is feeling and goes on from there, trying to make sense of what is happening or at least come to terms with it. The book does not tie up neatly; the children do not solve their problems, at least not fully; but the message that writing can help organize thoughts and manage sadness comes through clearly.
For a more amusing, less dour view of handling life at ages 8-12 – but one in which a pet’s death still plays an important part – there is Donna Gephart’s How to Survive Middle School, whose title could stand for a whole series of books, not just hers. This book takes readers through familiar themes, including a friend lost and regained, a parent out of touch and unavailable, and a school bully. But 11-year-old David Greenberg (called “Lameberg” by the bully and his cohorts) does have some things that set him apart from other middle-schoolers. One is a Jewish grandmother (Bubbe) who is constantly supportive and bakes a wonderful apple cake (recipe supplied at the end of the book). Another is a girl who becomes David’s new best friend when his former best friend deserts him. And a third is his own sense of humor, exemplified in TalkTime videos that David makes and posts on YouTube, complete with “Top 6½ Lists” that bring him more and more attention and eventually hand him a fairly large dose of celebrity – which, however, does not save him from middle-school humiliations. As David tries to juggle all the aspects of his life, sometimes with a modicum of success and sometimes without one, he maintains as a touchstone a hamster that his mother bought for him just a few days before she mysteriously disappeared and went incommunicado – without even a phone. Eventually, David learns a whole set of life lessons, including what happened to his mother and how it is possible to love and lose something and then recover. Through it all, Gephart maintains a mostly upbeat tone even when David is going through difficult times, as if to let readers know that everything will work out all right in the end. Everything does – not ideally, true, but in a positive enough way so readers will be reassured that, whatever their own problems may be, it is better to face and overcome them than to try to run away.
Older readers who have actually survived middle school – specifically, teenage girls – get a different sort of message at the start of Runaway, the third and last novel in Meg Cabot’s Airhead series (following the series-title novel itself and Being Nikki). The trilogy combines science-fiction elements with voyeurism of the “inside the world of supermodels” type, as Emerson (Em) Watts’ mind is transplanted into top teen lingerie model Nikki Howard’s body through the machinations of an evil corporation called Stark, whose sole interest in the “full-body transplant” process is its profit margin. Initially reluctantly, then with growing enthusiasm, then with horror at her own complicity in whatever is going on, Em/Nikki becomes part of the original Nikki’s world, including all the money and parties and boys and fashion shoots and world travel and attention, attention, attention. But of course she is a good girl at heart (even if the heart in her body isn’t exactly hers, Em’s, anymore), and in Runaway she tries to escape her responsibilities (work and school) and all the people who put pressure on her (friends and family) – but discovers that running away solves nothing and is not really even possible. So, like her middle-school counterparts, Em/Nikki learns that she must face and conquer her fears and difficulties – and moves in a thoroughly unsurprising direction, determining to expose the evil that Stark Corporation has done and bring down its billionaire CEO, Robert Stark. The way this happens – with plenty of help from Em/Nikki’s boyfriend, Christopher, and his cousin, Felix – is most of what Runaway is about, although there is still time for some snide comments on what it is like to live the high life (“I like waking up to find only people I’ve invited over in my bedroom”). There is a climactic exposé scene – on New Year’s Eve, naturally – that ends with the bad guys arrested and with Robert Stark’s son, Brandon, announcing that he is taking over Stark Corporation and will make his father’s firm “a greener, more earth-friendly corporation” with a union and good health care for employees, mandatory sexual-harassment training seminars, and all sorts of other good stuff. This is a pack of arrant nonsense, but no sillier than the underlying premise of the trilogy – which, however, Cabot works through expertly once bypassing its implausibility. Runaway is a satisfying conclusion to the Airhead novels and is a good, easily forgettable read – the sort of book that, with its companions, is just right for a rainy day at the beach.