May 12, 2011


Cheesie Mack Is Not a Genius or Anything. By Steve Cotler. Illustrated by Adam McCauley. Random House. $15.99.

Liar, Liar. By Gary Paulsen. Wendy Lamb Books. $12.99.

The Reinvention of Bessica Lefter. By Kristen Tracy. Delacorte Press. $15.99.

Calli Be Gold. By Michele Weber Hurwitz. Wendy Lamb Books. $15.99.

     Middle school clearly means different things to boy and girls, and middle-school-oriented books look at very different gender roles and use very different plot lines, too. Whether the books encourage typecasting or are simply reflective of the splits that exist in the real world is arguable, but the fact remains that the readership of Steve Cotler’s and Gary Paulsen’s new books is likely to be male, while that of Kristen Tracy’s and Michele Weber Hurwitz’s books will likely be female. The genders of the authors, and even to an extent of the characters, matter less than the books’ approaches, which are designed to appeal specifically either to boys or to girls, but not to both.

     Cheesie Mack Is Not a Genius or Anything is the beginning of a series about Ronald “Cheesie” Mack and his best friend, Georgie, starting in this book with fifth-grade graduation and continuing (or intended to continue) in later ones with summer camp, middle school and so on. What distinguishes Cheesie is not intelligence (hence the book’s title) but memory – he recalls everything that happens to him and writes it all down, with attitude if not always flair: “Granpa…once burped the opening to ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ Musical burping is a Mack Family Tradition.” There are various stylistic flourishes, not only in the drawings (Adam McCauley’s fit the characters well) but also in the writing – for instance, when Cheesie learns that Georgie’s father has been laid off, Cheesie writes that Georgie’s dad works…then crosses that out and writes “worked” – for a technology company. There is very little real thoughtfulness here, and what there is consists of comments like this: “I’ve noticed a funny thing about crying. Little kids actually seem to like doing it. When you’re small, you wail and wail. It’s loud. You make enough noise to block out the rest of the world. …But when you get to almost eleven, like me, mostly you don’t do that anymore.” From a sister (Cheesie calls her Goon) portrayed as “a hideously deformed mutant” (the picture looks just as readers will expect it to), to the Point Battle between the two (which involves who gets punished for doing what, and by whom), to a series of sort-of-chapters of sort-of-books in various styles (SF, magical fantasy), Cheesie Mack Is Not a Genius or Anything is silly and funny and immature and often pointless, but friendship and basic goodness eventually win out over all, and everything ends happily and in anticipation of the next book.

     Paulsen’s fans anticipate all his books, which individually stand alone but have a great deal in common – including the fact that they are short and easy to read. Liar, Liar runs just 120 pages, but it actually raises a few issues in a typically Paulsenian humorous way. The protagonist, Kevin, is 14 – on the old side for a book targeted at middle-grade readers – and wants a girlfriend (unlike, say, Cheesie, who proudly proclaims that there are no girlfriends in his book). Kevin wants a girl named Tina to notice him, so he devises an elaborate plan that involves spying, becoming friends with Tina’s best friend, and changing his school schedule so he will have more chances to “run into” Tina. The schedule changes require Kevin to lie – effectively – about opportunities for him in the theater, student government and athletics. Kevin is also busy playing his parents off against each other so he can get permission to go to a concert. The problem for Kevin, of course, is that liars eventually trip up and get caught – or at least they do in books for this age group – so Paulsen weaves a story in which Kevin’s careful planning starts to unravel as he tries to balance school and home issues and keep everything he has been telling everyone straight. “I didn’t realize what had just happened. Everything had been going so well, I mean I guess not, but…” Kevin even finds that simply trying to tell the truth after all his lying doesn’t help: “That was not how this scene had played out in my head as I walked to school – she was supposed to be happy I’d confessed and secretly pleased. …She was totally ruining my great plan.” The chapter titles progress from, for example, “A Good Lie Has an Outcome Advantageous to All Parties,” to “A Good Lie Demands Substantial Amends,” to “A Good Lie Is an Oxymoron,” in case readers didn’t get the point strongly enough from the story itself.

     Friendship, uncertainty, middle-school angst, feelings of being left out, and similar issues are as prominent in girl-oriented books as in ones targeting boys, but they are handled quite differently. The Reinvention of Bessica Lefter (is anyone really named Bessica?) features a hair-salon incident; a with-it grandmother, complete with mountain-climbing boyfriend, and a mother who doesn’t get it (no surprises there); an enforced separation of Bessica from her best friend, Sylvie; and worries such as this one: “‘I won’t know the dorks from the dweebs. In fact, I might be mistaken for a dork or a dweeb. I don’t even know what people wear!’” These concerns are about as surface-level as they can be, which is not to say they are unrealistic for Tracy’s book’s audience. Bessica is not a particularly distinctive character, although she is prone to making lists. Number 1 on “Things to Do in Middle School,” for example, is “Avoid Psycho-bullies, Crispitos, and Dolan the Puker.” While dealing with typical (in middle-grade books) family issues and typical (in middle-grade books) teachers – the PE teacher says that “victory starts with impeccable clothes” – Bessica negotiates various people’s illnesses and injuries, deals with bullying and with cheerleading practice, talks on the phone a lot (in sections printed as back-and-forth dialogue), and eventually decides, “‘My life sucks and things are terrible.’” But of course, entirely predictably, Bessica eventually turns out just fine, learns some lessons about herself and capital-L Life, and even gets to wear fur pants.

     The story has a little more depth in Calli Be Gold, which features an 11-year-old who is constantly overshadowed by her high-achieving brother (a high-school basketball star) and older sister (a competitor in synchronized ice skating). Calli feels like a failure, having tried unsuccessfully to be a star at gymnastics and violin playing. Then her parents sign her up for improvisational acting, and Calli soon starts to discover that she does have talent – but acting isn’t it. What happens is that she is paired in the school’s Peer Helper Program with a very shy and withdrawn second-grader named Noah Zullo. And Calli finds that she can really help Noah: she and he end up creating a Friendship Fair booth and filling it with all sorts of surprises. The big surprise – although not for readers – is what a good job the two do together, giving the lie to Calli’s feeling of being just a “C” (her brother’s name starts with A, her sister’s with B). But before she can come to terms with herself and have her own sense of triumph and individuality, Calli has an encounter with The Calendar, on which her mom puts Post-It notes for all Calli’s brother’s and sister’s activities (but rarely anything for Calli herself). The tearing of the calendar is the closest thing here to a metaphor for the ripping apart of an overscheduled, manic life through some warm and simple activities that tug quite deliberately at readers’ hearts. And that, above all, is where this book and others intended for girls differ the most from ones for boys in the same age group: “girl books” aim for the heart, while “boy books” aim for – well, it’s not exactly the heart and not really the head, but maybe it’s the funny bone.

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