July 15, 2010


I So Don’t Do Makeup. By Barrie Summy. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

Nature Girl. By Jane Kelley. Random House. $16.99.

One Crazy Summer. By Rita Williams-Garcia. Amistad/HarperCollins. $15.99.

     Froth rises to the top of confections designed for summer reading – at least most of the time. Certainly the I So Don’t Do series is frothy in any season. Barrie Summy’s third book, I So Don’t Do Makeup, is the same type of sort-of-detective, sort-of-humorous novel as her first two, I So Don’t Do Mysteries and I So Don’t Do Spooky. It does not really have as promising a premise as the first two books, with their detecting and supernatural overtones, but on the other hand, it has a lot more beauty products. In fact, that is the premise here: preteen sleuth Sherry Holmes Baldwin (never forget the “Holmes” part) has a sleepover-plus-makeover with friends, but something is seriously wrong with the eye shadow, glitter and hair products, because the girls wake up with major skin issues. And they are not the only ones upset and angry about this: Naked Makeup, where Sherry gets her products, is getting lots of returns and at this rate is going to be forced out of business. Aha! Something nefarious must be going on! “We’re convinced someone’s sabotaging Lacey [of Naked Makeup]…to, like, put her out of business.” And when Sherry tries to keep a close eye on the makeup by giving out samples on her own – well, “Ack! Eek! Ike! Something’s in the Silky Soft Hand Lotion! Something not silky. Something not soft. Something very thin, prickly and pointy. Many of these somethings.” Soon there are multiple suspects And some kissing in an inappropriate location: “It’s embarrassing enough to get caught kissing next to the bulk toilet paper in Discount Mart.” And a whole lot of “Ack! Eek! Ike!” moments. And some dumpster diving to catch the crook. And, of course, an encounter with Sherry’s mother, the ghost – yes, it would help to know earlier installments in this series to understand that. “I’m hugging my mother. I’m actually hugging her. And touching her. And feeling her. My mother, who died two years ago.” It is all very warm in a suitably weird way, and thus perfect for summer enjoyment.

     Nature Girl, the first novel by Jane Kelley, misses out on supernatural touches in favor of natural ones. Too much nature, in fact, for Megan, who is stuck for the whole summer in rural Vermont with no electronic gadgets (not even a working cell phone) and no human friends. But she does have a canine buddy, Arp, and she does have plenty of spunk (she is one of those 11-year-old spunky protagonists), so of course she decides to hike the Appalachian Trail. Well, there’s a little more logic to the plot, but not much. Megan gets lost on the trail and figures that once she’s on it, she might as well stay on it, and stick with it until the trail takes her from Vermont to Massachusetts, where she will find her best friend, Lucy. So off she goes with Arp. “Arp is no Loyal Dog. He’s little and fluffy and dirty white. And (I’m kind of embarrassed to mention this) he has a ponytail sticking up on the top of his head. That’s because his fur flops in his eyes. …So [Mom] took one of Ginia’s scrunchies and made a little ponytail on his forehead.“ And on Megan and Arp go, through chapters called “Thank Goodness for Oreos!“ (which comes complete with a bear) and “Dorks!” and “Starving to Death,” coping with food shortages and bathroom shortages (well, not for Arp) and interspersing the narrative with cute little drawings that Megan makes and cute little observations that she offers (tofu strips are “THE MOST DISGUSTING THINGS I’VE EVER EATEN!”). And eventually Megan finds out a sad reason that she can’t go see Lucy after all, but then she discovers that life is all about the journey, anyway, and she realizes that the adventure itself is what matters, and she finds a way to pull together her desire to see Lucy and her determination to have her hike mean something, and it is all so heartwarming that some readers will overdose on the sweetness. Others will consider it just one of those too-sweet tastes of summer.

     One Crazy Summer is not sweet, at least in the same way, and it’s not exactly crazy, either. It’s a slice of ancient history for today’s young readers, set all the way back in 1968; and yes, it’s full of “summer of love” references and hippie life and pretty much every possible cliché of the era. But hey, some of those clichés have more than a dab of truth to them. So this is the story of three sisters – Delphine (at 11, the oldest), Vonetta and Fern – heading to Oakland, California, from their home in Brooklyn, to spend some time with the mother who abandoned all of them seven years earlier. But their mom, Cecile, wants nothing to do with them, so she sends them to an “educational” camp run by the Black Panthers, where they will presumably learn to smash the state. Along the way, Delphine finds out that she has been named for “a big fishy mammal with a wide grin” (she punches the boy who tells her). She decides that “we were probably part of the revolution.” She is told, when she wants to look out for her younger sisters during a rally, “We look out for each other. The rally is one way of looking out for all of our sisters. All of our brothers. Unity, Sister Delphine. We have to stand united.” Did people really talk like that, really think like that, in 1968? Well, some surely did, but for 21st-century readers, a lot of Rita Williams-Garcia’s writing, especially the dialogue, might as well be in Chaucerian English. The connection for today’s young readers here is in the way family members – some of them, anyway – try to look out for each other during difficult times. There is even a let’s-all-hug-Mom scene at the end that is surely intended to be tearjerking but that comes across as terribly forced. Maybe you had to be there (Williams-Garcia wasn’t) to have a sense of what was really going on during the turmoil of 1968, especially in California. There were indeed children there in the midst of everything, as the author says – but there was more to the “crazy summer" than this book indicates, and also less. This is a cut-and-dried novel, filled with self-importance and proclaimed seriousness, about a time that refused to be packaged in the way Williams-Garcia packages it. It is certainly not typical summer reading. It is also not so much history as it is alternative history – fiction cast as almost-fact.

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