September 19, 2013
(++++) THE COOLNESS CONUNDRUM
Babymouse: Queen of the World! By Jennifer L. Holm & Matthew Holm. Random House. $6.99.
Too Cool for This School. By Kristen Tracy. Delacorte Press. $16.99.
The ultimate worry for many preteens and teenagers – how to fit in, specifically as part of the “cool” group – is at the heart of these two very different books. The very first Babymouse book, originally published in 2005 and now available in a new edition, takes on the issue straightforwardly for readers ages 7-10. It may be hard to remember back to this book for those who have followed the series for years – there are 17 of the books now, and the sister-and-brother team of Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm shows no sign of slowing down. But there are reasons these small-size graphic novels became instantly popular, and rereading Babymouse: Queen of the World! shows why. The title character is befuddled enough but good-natured enough to grab readers’ attention and hold onto it; her minor oddities (curly whiskers, tendency to say “typical” when things do not go well, as they frequently do not) are nicely balanced by her all-too-human foibles (such as the “fitting in” theme of the first book); and the books’ structure, including Babymouse’s daydreams and her back-and-forth repartee with the sometimes-snarky narrator, is attractive and innovative. Like the title character in the Cathy comic strip, Babymouse perpetually dresses in outfits with a heart on them, a subtle indicator of the extent to which she wears her heart on her sleeve (well, in her case it’s her dress, but the meaning is still clear). In this first book, Babymouse really, really, really wants to be invited to a sleepover at the home of Felicia Furrypaws, soon to become Babymouse’s arch-enemy but in this book the coolest of the cool kids. Babymouse is willing to compromise her friendship with Wilson the Weasel and her own integrity (by giving her book report to Felicia to hand in as Felicia’s own) to wrangle an invitation – and of course, when she gets what she wants and goes to the party, she discovers that what she gave up is worth more than what she thought she wanted, and walks out. Babymouse imagines herself as “queen of the world” and eventually decides that she already is, in the ways that matter. The lesson is simple and straightforward, but the presentation so effectively avoids being preachy that readers will accept this little morality tale as a delightful adventure featuring a highly attractive central character – which is in fact how readers did accept the book when it first appeared.
The lesson is ultimately not that different in Kristen Tracy’s Too Cool for This School, but since this is a traditional novel and is aimed at older readers – ages 10 and up – the presentation is a great deal more complicated. Unlike Babymouse, who is unhappy with her life until she realizes how good it is, Lane Cisco, the protagonist of Tracy’s book, is more than satisfied with things until they get destabilized. The destabilizer is Lane’s visiting cousin from Alaska, Angelina “Mint” Taravel, whose offbeat, nonconforming style proves highly attractive to the rather straitlaced crowd at Rio Chama Middle School – including the boys that Lane and her best friend, Ava, like. Clearly something has to be done – doesn’t it? Ava certainly thinks so, and comes up with a plan to undermine Mint. But this puts Lane in a quandary: be mean and get back at Mint for being just too cool, or stick up for family and end up defending someone who is really getting in the way and is just plain weird? Unattractive choices – and that is the whole point. Luckily, Tracy presents them, and the whole situation at school and home, with enough humor to prevent things from dragging or getting too dismal. Take Lane’s reaction to the outfit Mint picks for the first day of school: “Angelina had chosen to wear her wolf T-shirt…. Inside out! She looked ridiculous. Was she trying to hide the fact that her T-shirt had a wolf on it? Because even inside out, you could clearly see the outline of that beast. I thought people might think she was trying to hide a stain. And then maybe these same people would think she didn’t have enough money to buy an unstained ugly shirt.” Clearly Lane thinks too much – and worries too much about acceptance and coolness. Later, while deciding whether to go ahead with the plan to ruin Mint, Lane tells her mom – who thinks, correctly, that Lane is being mean to Mint – that she has introduced Mint to a lot of people. “Which was basically true. Except my best friend and I had both decided to hate her openly.” Still later, after Mint has thoroughly “trashed my life,” Lane explains, “Avoiding Angelina Mint Taravel became my only goal.” But then Lane has second thoughts – more like 22nd thoughts by this time – and notices that “somewhere in [Mint’s] inability to blend she’d stolen that light that usually glowed above Ava. But was that light really supposed to glow all the time? Was it possible to share the light?” Uh-oh. Sounds as if a touch of maturity is rearing its ugly head. And so it is, notably in a conversation at the end of Mint’s visit, in which Lane admits to herself, “I never really wanted Mint to fit in. And so I never gave her a chance.” And then everyone sort of makes up with everyone else and sort of parts as friends and everything works out just fine in the end and – well, the sappy conclusion is not the best part of the book, but is probably inevitable given what has come before. Too Cool for This School is a (+++) novel that does not solve the eternal coolness problem or even really bring much insight to the issue, but it has enough quirkiness and enough heartfelt (if somewhat overdone) emotion so preteens and young teenagers will find themselves entertained, if not really enlightened.