Two Stories for Fans of Drama (as in Theater)

by | Oct 5, 2022

I recently read two different middle-grade books set in the school theater world. The school in “Meow or Never,” by Jazz Taylor, is doing a student-written, contemporary version of Romeo and Juliet in which the rival families own feuding donut shops. “Meow or Never” seems to be part of a pet-focused Scholastic series (“Random Acts of Kittens,” “Alpaca My Bags,” etc), with each installment written by a different author.

In the other story, “Twelfth,” by Janet Key (Little Brown and Company), the theater program is at a summer camp and is producing Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.” “Twelfth” is a mystery with a second story line set in the 1950s, making the story a bit more complex than “Meow or Never.”

“Meow or Never” is about anxiety, first crushes and making new friends, including furry ones. The main character, Avery, loves to sing and is great at it, but suffers terrible anxiety. Unfortunately, she got cast as the lead because her crush/classmate, Nic, heard her singing and insisted she audition for the drama teacher.

Taylor, the author, does a great job helping the reader understand what panic attacks feel like, with shortness of breath, almost blacking out and other symptoms. She also shows Avery trying to manage them, thanks to guidance from the school nurse, by focusing on three things she can see. When her vision gives out, she focuses on three things she can hear or feel.

Meanwhile, Avery discovers a stray cat in a backstage closet. She wants her own pet, but her brother is allergic, so she names the cat “Phantom” and visits her whenever she can. This is one source of relaxation and happiness for Avery.

The good part of being in the play is she can hang around her crush, Nic, who is very friendly but who Avery doesn’t think likes her that way. Avery is convinced she’s too weird for anyone to want to hang out with her and can’t figure out why Nic is being so friendly. She also makes friends with Harper, the shy girl who wrote the play.

What’s fun about this story is how it shows three sixth graders making friends with one another, from walking to school together and sleepovers to helping one another with their struggles. On the outside, people wouldn’t think these three have much in common —Nic is the second-most popular girl in sixth grade, Avery is brand-new to town and Harper is extremely introverted, but they find one another.

The cat in the story is a fun element and the author does a good job showing how pets in general help calm Avery’s panic attacks, whether that’s Phantom or Nic’s family dog, Noodles.

In “Twelfth,” there are two story lines, a contemporary one and one from the 1950s. I am particularly fond of these kinds of two-strand stories that tie together in the end.

In the contemporary story, the main character, Maren, is being parked at theater camp while her older sister, Hadley, is undergoing intensive therapy for depression.

Maren doesn’t really care about theater camp or about following in Hadley’s very large drama footsteps, but she is good at piecing together puzzles and following clues. When someone leaves Maren a Twelfth Night-related clue that might pertain to a fabled missing diamond ring — which is the connection to the 1950s-era story line — the game is afoot, as Sherlock Holmes would say.

The secondary story involves the future founder of the summer theater camp, but it is set in Hollywood during the Red Scare, during which many people, including actors, working in Hollywood were accused of being Communists and hounded from their livelihoods.

Interestingly, there are gender-identity threads in both story lines. 

A lot of “Twelfth” seems to happen in the dark, and there is a sinister feel to the story, so if that is not something your young reader feels comfortable with, just be forewarned. Still, there are many bright spots. The faculty are all characters in different ways and Theo, Maren’s gender-neutral bunkmate, adds some flair with their themed vests — literally a different one for every day of camp.

The story shines a light also on depression, on the Red Scare and the history of film making, especially the fire hazard of celluloid films, so there’s a lot going on.

Reading these two books close together made me realize that I hadn’t read a middle-grade book with theater as the central plot structure in a long time, if ever, which surprised me. Both stories did a good job of showing how much hard work goes into memorizing lines and otherwise producing a show, without bogging the pace down too much.

I imagine it might even make some readers consider joining their school’s drama program, whether on stage or behind the scenes. And it certainly shines a light on this common tween interest, which doesn’t often get featured in kidlit, in my reading experience.

Alexandra the Great book cover

Learn More!


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.