Tuesday, February 17, 2009

For 24 years, I've been living next door to Alice...

Last week I blogged about the changing covers of the Alice McKinley series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. Today, I thought I'd blog about the books. I just read 10 Alice books more or less in a row. Separating them out into 10 different reviews is too much work (sorry) so this is just one mass review of the last half of the series. As such, there will probably be some spoilers.

The books I'm looking at are:

Alice On The Outside In which Alice worries about whether or not she's "in" or "out"--complete with quotation marks. Also prejudice and racism! And a lesbian! (Ok, with all the changing covers on this series, WHY does this one still look like it's from 1987? Especially when it came out in 1999?!)

The Grooming of Alice In which there is an eating disorder. Kinda. Not really.

Alice Alone Breaking up is haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaard toooooooo doooooooooo!

Simply Alice In which Alice develops outside interests and Liz and Pam resent her for it. Also! The one with abusive boyfriends!

Patiently Alice In which we talk a lot more about racism.

Including Alice What happens when the step-mother of your dreams finally moves in and you have to see her before she's had her coffee?

Alice on Her Way In which Alice gets her drivers license, goes to New York, and has a new boyfriend who is super clingy. We also learn a valuable lesson about reputations.

Alice in the Know In which there is beer and pot and a friend with cancer.

Dangerously Alice In which Alice has a boyfriend who wants to go further than she does and there's a car accident.

Almost Alice The one with teen pregnancy.

I have a love/hate relationship with Alice. I mean, I wish I was reading this series when I was in junior high and high school (although these books are the most relevant to that time and they all came out after I graduated from high school). I like that Alice sees all the issues around her, but even when she's "living dangerously" she's a pretty straight-laced. We don't have that many characters in YA lit, where they see everything going on around them, don't overly condemn it, but realize it's not for them, which I think is actually a lot of teens. I think Alice worries about a lot of things that most teen girls worry about but don't often put voice to.

On the other hand... everything in the world happens to Alice's friends. Seriously. Every book is a new after-school special. BUT! Everything ends up nice and normal. A friend almost has an eating disorder (I'm sorry Naylor, but no, you can't be "getting a little anorexic") but her friends and family help her see that she's lost too much weight, so she starts eating again and everything is fine. A friend is pregnant but luckily miscarries the baby so she doesn't have to make any of the hard decisions about what to do with it, or even tell her father!

Then, there's Alice's voice. Where I love her feelings and questions, Alice doesn't talk like an authentic teen. When talking about Pam's relationship with her parents in The Grooming of Alice, Alice doesn't say that Pam and her dad fight all the time, no, they "quarrel." In one of the earlier books (before they break up) Alice is talking about how wonderful Patrick is at everything. But, instead of saying that he's good at everything he does, Alice says he's "competent." Really. And this is a boy she really likes, not someone she's stretching to say something nice about.

Also, why the @#$#, when she's talking about how awesome Sylvia Summers (her father's girlfriend/fiance/wife) is, does she ONLY talk about how pretty she is? This passage is from Patiently Alice but pretty much the same thing gets said in every book before Sylvia moves in:

Sylvia, with her blue eyes and light brown hair, her wonderful smile and wonderful scent, seemed the perfect [role] model for me and the perfect wife for Dad.

Nothing about how she was nice or caring or had similar interests. NOPE! Alice apparently wants this woman for her mother because she's pretty. And while not admirable, that might be true when Alice firsts gets to know her, but Sylvia has been in the picture for awhile now, and Alice can honestly say that Sylvia is nice and caring and has similar interests. Through the books and plot, we get these things and I have a pretty good feeling that that is why Alice really likes Sylvia, but when she's giving all the basic info in the first few pages? Alice only likes her because she's pretty and smells good.

One other thing really bugged me. In Patiently Alice, the girls all go off to be summer camp counselors for inner city kids. Now Alice got a token black friend in Alice on the Outside, but there are also some race issues in this one. In order to make the kids see that everything isn't all black and white, Gwen puts out black, white, red, and yellow paint and has the kids mix colors together until they get their own skin tone. The moral being that everyone needs a little of every color to get the mix right. BUT! Then one of the girls paints red stripes on her skin and says "Look! I'm an Indian!" and everyone laughs. No discussion (because lots of discussion only takes place to teach morals and life lessons in this series) about stereotyping or racism against Native Americans. Nope, it's a bonding moment amongst everyone. Ha. Ha. Ha. Grrrrr.

Even though a lot of discussion (especially with Alice's Dad or older brother) only takes place so that a RESPONSIBLE ADULT can give us all some guidance, I do really miss those discussions when Sylvia moves in. While there are a lot of adjustments when Sylvia joins that family, that doesn't seem to be one that Alice overly misses. Which seemed odd to me.

And, to end on a positive note, in Alice on her Way, we find out that Alice is Unitarian Universalist. This really excites me because I was raised UU and we don't see a lot of UU kids in literature and when none of your classmates have heard of your religion, well. Ok, so it never comes out and says that Alice is UU, BUT! Alice's dad signs her up for a class at church (the one on Cedar Lane, and there is a UU church on Cedar Lane in Bethesda. No I didn't look this up, my mom did. :) ) Anyway, the class is called Our Whole Lives and is about sex and relationships. That is a UU class. (Also, on the first day of class, they talk about why they're talking about it in church, and it's because one of the church's principles is respecting the inherit worth and dignity in every person. That's UUism.) Anyway, I took this class's predecessor and it's a unofficial right of passage. I was SO EXCITED to see it in a book. SO EXCITED.

While Alice drives me crazy, she does remind me a lot of me at that age, so I keep reading. The next book, Intensely Alice will come out this spring. Yes, I will read it. I'm looking forward to it.


annie said...

Of the Phyllis Reynolds Naylor books, I liked her "Witch" series a lot better--problems happen directly to the main character, and they were so spooky for a sixth grader. (Not exactly the kind of witches in Harry Potter.) And it's less like an after school special.

Have you read Lois Lowry's Anastasia books? They're about real-life issues, like the Alice books, but Anastasia is hysterical.

Jennie said...

I haven't read the "Witch" series yet.

I did read the first Anastasia book. I wished I had read it when I was in elementary school, but I can't read it as an adult.

In Alice, Naylor picks up on childhood foibles and mishaps that I'm now able to laugh about. Lowry picks up on feelings that still hurt...

Anonymous said...

(Came here via Bookshelves of Doom...)

You lay out the pros and cons of Alice McKinley very succinctly, and I'm with you on just about every one. Is there any after-school topic Naylor *hasn't* hit? Suicide... drunk driving... you name it, it's in there. But the books discuss these touchy subjects so frankly, you gotta give them credit.

What I don't get is why I (thirty year old woman) am apparently addicted to them. The writing's serviceable but not amazing. Alice's life is overall pretty mundane. Yet every time a new book comes out, I'm ready for it!

Jennie said...

I do give the Alice books credit for covering the issues they do. I think a lot of these issues are being covered more and more in teen lit, but Alice was a truly groundbreaking series.

As for why I keep reading... I'm just too invested in Alice as a character. The books drive me crazy, but I need to check in and make sure she's still ok!

M. Molly said...

Omg, JENNIE! I didn't realize that I should be writing books about UU kids! DUH! There's so much potential there! Like when they go to cons and get caught smoking in the bushes! Or when the kids at their schools ask them if being unitarian means they worship Satan! WHY HAVEN'T YOU POINTED THIS OUT TO ME BEFORE??

In other news, some of the Alice covers look like the Full House novelizations, which were all fine pieces of literature, I assure you.

Jennie said...

Molly-- Plus, WINK! Also, we must totally have been at the same cons and just not known each other. WEIRD.

Honestly, I never thought about it until I read it in a book. At which point I totally called my mom, so she could tell all of her OWLS kids about it!

Even if Naylor gets it wrong and has Alice taking OWLS as a junior. Instead of in junior high. Ah well. She also thinks it only costs $11 to get a cab from Silver Spring to College Park and that the best way to distinguish your token black character is to have to her say "girl" in every sentence.

tanita✿davis said...

(here via Bookshelves of Doom)

I love the whole idea of OWLS -- when I read the Alice book long ago, I didn't realize it was a real organization -- I just thought HOW COOL it was that someone at her CHURCH wanted to talk frankly about her body, etc. What an awesome concept.

I love/hate Alice, too. New writers are warned and harangued at over the "problem novel" being very eighties and dated and not acceptable, yet Naylor rolls on, and I don't know how she does it. Perhaps she is the Designated After School Special writer. I guess we have to have one.

kimberly said...

(here via Bookshelves of Doom)

I used to love the Alice books. I read them all the time as a teenager, but then stopped and haven't read one since. Ironically, I don't remember any of the stuff you mentioned. At all. Why is that, I wonder? I mean, I remember some of the stuff with Patrick, but on the whole, my memories of the books are faint. I just remember liking them at the time.

Now I'm curious. I might start re-reading them and see what I get out of them now that I'm no longer a teenager.