THE GROOMING OF ALICE.

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THE GROOMING OF ALICE BY PHYLLIS REYNOLDS NAYLOR

★★★

If you were to ask me if I had to pinpoint with the Alice series switches from middle-grade to young adult, I would say it’s The Grooming of Alice. Alice’s issues and manner of speaking become a bit more adult, and oh god does she even through some truly teenage tantrums in this one.

At one point, Alice, in a fit of pubescent dramatics, dubs the summer between eighth and ninth grade the worst summer ever. I’m normally against hyperbole, but I have to admit that our every-girl heroine sure has a lot of issues thrown at her in these two hundred pages.

Alice, Pamela and Elizabeth decide they need to get in shape for high school and commit themselves to a low-calorie, high-exercise regimen. Alice, forever the realist, doesn’t take any of it too seriously. Elizabeth, on the other hand, who has always been the quiet and sensitive one, begins to take losing weight too far. She soon veers alarmingly close to eating disorder territory, and gives Alice — and the reader — a lesson in body image and self-confidence.

Pamela’s life essentially implodes in this one too. Her mother is currently shacked up in Colorado with her NordicTrack instructor boyfriend, leaving Pamela alone with her moody, aloof father. Her troubled relationship with her dad culminates in her attempt to “run away”, in which she really ends up hiding in Alice’s room. Alice’s attempt to protect Pamela, and hide her from both their dads as well as the police, ends up completely blowing up in her face. She ends up grounded with her dad more angry at her than ever before. Alice always tends to do the ‘right thing’, so it was kind of refreshing to see her make a really poor decision and face the consequences.

Alice and her new friend Gwen start candy-striping at the local hospital, and Alice loves finding herself relied upon in a professional context. It is her first taste of real responsibility, and she gains some confidence as well as experience. Her enjoyment is marred by the sudden passing of Mrs. Plotkin, her favorite former teacher. This is the biggest loss Alice has experienced in her living memory, and her grief and confusion are totally appropriate and relatable:

“I…I’m sorry,” I said, my face all scrunched up, puffy and feverish. “I don’t know what’s the matter with me. It’s as though she were part of the family.”

“I think she was, Al,” Dad said quietly. “I think she came closest, maybe, to being a mother for you for a while. You never did, you know, really get a chance to grieve for your mom; you were too young to understand the finality of it. I think it’s a fine thing that you loved Mrs. Plotkin so much. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t miss her so much now.”

These are the little moments that set the series apart from all the other middle-graders, and one of the reason I still love re-reading them so much. The quiet meaningful moments end up sticking with me much more than the high dramatics.

Random observations:

  • I love Lester so much more this time around. I remember not liking him very much when I first read these books, and now I think I can relate to him better than I can relate to Alice. I wonder if I go back and read these books in another ten years I’ll identify with Alice’s dad the most.
  • Alice also formally introduces herself to her vulva in this one, via a hand-mirror. Actual quote:

“Well,” I said to my privates, “nice to meet you!”

  • Some serious foreshadowing with the subtle introduction of Penny, Alice’s future rival-in-love. She should have suspected something was up when Patrick referred to her as having “personality and pizzazz”…what does that even mean, Patrick.
  • Speaking of dated language — this is the first time it was really noticeable to me. “Doggone on it” is not something the next generation says, but I can’t hold it against Naylor who was born in 1933 (!!).

ALICE ON THE OUTSIDE.

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Alice on the Outside by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

★★★★

Yep, still reading these. I just realized that I’m not even halfway through with this series. Good God.

But this is one of the best in the series! Alice #11, in which Alice experiences prejudice and homophobia for the first time.

Alice’s school runs something called Consciousness Raising Week to reach the students about prejudice and privilege. Based on hair color, students are assigned to groups A, B or C, and have certain restrictions and rites based on those groups. Certain groups can only use certain staircases, sit in certain parts of the cafeteria, etc. The students see it as a joke originally, but by the end of the week, everyone is highly emotional and on edge. It’s kind of heavy-handed in delivery, and maybe even a bit preachy, buts its also a good examination of privilege and discrimination, especially for a middle grade book.

There’s also a side story in which Alice gets to know Lori Hayes, a new student in her grade. At a sleepover at Lori’s house, Alice realizes that Lori is interested in her romantically, and she handles the situation with tact and grace. It’s a nice moment that does not overdramatize the miscommunication. Later, Alice has a discussion with her dad in which he makes it clear that he would love her regardless of her sexual orientation. I can imagine that a young reader struggling with his or her sexuality would find particular comfort and solace in this storyline, and I applaud Naylor for including it and doing it justice.

The book also contains one of the realest discussions of sex I have ever seen in a book, let alone a middle-grade book. When Alice’s worldy older cousin Carol comes to visit, Alice take the opportunity to learn all she can about sex and orgasms and love. There’s a nice emphasis on the fact that sex isn’t like it is in the movies. Alice learns that its not all about simultaneous orgasms and inexplicably perfect hair, but that sex is really about trust and requires clear communication. I can certainly see some parents taking issue with the sexual nature of that chapter, but Naylor handles it so well — like a blunt but loving grandmother.

Random observations:
– Found myself hating Patrick significantly less here. Is it possible he is developing his very own personality?
– This is the one where Patrick gets mono right before the semiformal, and Alice ends up going alone. I love she went to the dance by herself even though the idea intimidated her. It was also classy that Patrick enlisted Sam to take her to the dance, even though he knew Sam had a crush on her. Props to Patrick.
– I don’t really get how the title fit the story. If anything, this is more ‘Alice in the Know’ as she learns about prejudice, discrimination and relationships. But don’t worry – Alice in the Know is a title of a later book in the series. Did I mention how many of these there are?

ACHINGLY ALICE.

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ACHINGLY ALICE BY PHYLLIS REYNOLDS NAYLOR

★★★

Happy Banned Books Week! I was not feeling this week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic, so how about a review on one of the most banned books in America?

The winter of Alice’s eighth grade year poses a whole new set of challenges and excitements. As the title suggests, Alice finds herself aching in a multitude of ways. She desperately wants her dad and favorite teacher, Miss Summers, to tie the knot, but Miss Summers is torn between Alice’s dad and an old flame (who just happens to be the middle school vice principal, Mr. Sorringer).

While Alice is at first angry at Miss Summers, she soon finds herself feeling a little more sympathy when Alice herself is unsure about wanting to stay with her boyfriend Patrick when she finds herself attracted to a different guy in her Camera Club. She struggles between her attachment to Patrick while wanting to maintain her independence and explore other options.

I generally think the Alice books are pretty feminist in nature, but there are definitely some moments that make me shake my head. Alice’s obsession with her dad marrying Miss Summers is particularly out of control in this book — she goes as far as to lie to Miss Summers about seeing Mr. Sorringer out with another woman, which blows up in her face later. She also fantasizes that Miss Summers should quit her job teaching in order to become a wife to Ben and a mother to Alice, as if these two are mutually exclusive. Part of this is Alice’s desperation to have a ‘normal’ family again (Alice’s mom was a homemaker), but this underlying message of traditional gender roles bothers me.

I’m pretty exited that Miss Summers has decided to move to England for a year, for my sake as well as her’s. Alice seriously needed to stop obsessing over her dad’s love life, and I’m sick of reading about it.

Not one of the strongest books in the series, but it moves the plot along at a decent page and clears the way for brighter installments ahead.

OUTRAGEOUSLY ALICE.

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Outrageously Alice by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

★★★

 Another Alice book finished. I am maybe, kind of, sort of regretting my decision to binge on this series. They’re good books and all, but some of the humor and characters get a little repetitive when you go one right after the other. I might take a break after I finishing ‘Achingly Alice’ — I don’t want reading these to feel like a chore.

Anyway! This one takes place during the fall of Alice’s eighth grade year. As Alice sees big changes happening in the lives of people around her — Pamela’s parents separating, Elizabeth’s new baby brother and Crystal Hawkins (her brother Lester’s on and off again girlfriend) getting married — Alice feels like her life isn’t moving fast enough:

I wanted action! Decisions! I wanted, as Les might say, an event to change the course of human destiny, mine in particular. I wanted chapters to close, so that others could open up, and I could get on with it!

I totally relate to this feeling. When you’re so young and you feel like everything that happens to you is actually happening around you, because you have so little control over your own life. You just can’t wait to grow up and achieve a certain level of autonomy.

Alice deals with this restlessness in a series of mostly unsuccessful ways, most notably dyeing her hair green. She also attempted to match her green hair to her green eyeshadow and I totally remember when this was a thing in middle school. Wearing a pink shirt and getting the exact same shade of pink eyeshadow to match it. My mom would never buy me makeup so I unfortunately (fortunately?) missed out on this trend, but Alice’s ill-fated makeup choice, and her family’s reaction to it, was the funniest moment in the book for me.

In the end, Alice learns that you don’t have to be shocking and outrageous to grow up. In her less outrageous moments, Alice helps Pamela through her problems at home, keeps a cool head when her father falls off a ladder, and generally teaches readers that there’s more than one way to act like a grown-up:

It’s strange, but as I was sitting there at the head table looking out over the room, I began to feel that my life was moving forward — that at last I was growing up, because I realized how fooling it would have been if Lester had run off with Crystal. She’d made her decision with no guarantees whatsoever, and Les and I had to do the same. Maybe Lester wouldn’t marry anyone. Maybe I’d change my mind and decide not to be a psychiatrist after all, but at least I was inching closer to the person I wanted to be — more than just a clone of everyone else, but not so outrageously different that I had to wear green spikes on my head.

Overall, another lovely Alice book with a sweet message and a healthy dose of humor.


Also if you’ve made it this far down in the review — I’ve started bolding key parts of reviews. Is this a yay or a nay? Does it help capture the essence of the review or does it just look annoying?