As the school year begins again, I thought I’d post reviews of two school-related books. One is aptly titled, “The Class,” and the other is “Queen Bee and Me.”
The Class: A Story Told By 20 Voices
“The Class” by Frances O’Roark Dowell has a bit of a “Harriet the Spy” vibe to it; the main character, Ellie, likes to write and plans to write a novel about her classmates. But that’s about where the similarity ends (except that someone takes Ellie’s journal, which also happens to Harriet). Instead Dowell tells the story of various classroom dramas from the perspectives of, not just Ellie, but all 19 of her classmates.
That’s a handful and very tricky to do. The author had to make each person different enough in their personalities, their interests, and even their names (don’t you sometimes have trouble keeping characters with similar names straight?), so that it is easy for the reader to tell each person apart. That’s a lot of characters! But Dowell does a masterful job at both differentiating each student and —most important —making it clear that there is a lot going on inside individual that you couldn’t necessarily tell by just looking at them.
The story is set in Mrs. Herrera’s sixth grade class. It’s the first year of middle school, so some friendships are shifting. The reader will really like Mrs. Herrera, I think. She’s thoughtful, she sees each student as an individual, she makes the classroom a warm and welcoming place. One way she does that is by displaying her favorite possessions on a shelf by her desk. The collection includes some china kittens, a photograph and a signed copy of “Hatchet.” She tells the students that those items help her, on days she feels tired or unmotivated, to remember that “life is interesting, learning is good, and teaching is a noble profession.”
In Ellie’s case, her family has moved every few years for her father’s job, so making new friends is something she’s used to. She does make a friend before school, someone else new to the area, but that friend, Lila, quickly dumps Ellie when the popular girls show up. Ellie isn’t completely bereft since Lila was more interested in fashion and boys than anything interesting, like Harry Potter or watching “Dr. Who.”
Soon the plot thickens (as they say!) when 1) classmates (but definitely not friends) Petra and Becca cut off each other’s hair — when they were supposed to be at the library, 2) Mrs. Herrera is warned by the vice principal about being “on thin ice,” 3) some items get stolen from Mrs. Herrera’s collection, and 4) their classmate, Sam, who supposedly moved away, keeps showing up around the school.
The story isn’t exactly chronological, so the readers sees the same events narrated by different students, which is engaging. Also, Dowell does a great job getting inside each character’s head, so that the so-called “bad” kids’ behavior makes as much sense as the so-called “good” kids’. Different students, who don’t start out as friends, become friendly, and in the end it’s fascinating to watch the entire class begin to behave for the greater good.
I don’t want to give away the end, but Dowell is a skilled story teller and young readers will, mostly likely, see themselves in one or maybe several of the characters.
Queen Bee and Me
“The Queen Been and Me” is not only about a young girl who is a “queen bee” but it is also about actual queen bees, and other sorts of bees too. This book reminded me that one of the (many) things I love about reading is the opportunity to accidentally learn about something you thought you had no interest in.
So, for example, I am not interested enough in bees to go looking for information, but I was very interested in Meg, the main character in “The Queen Bee and Me,” and in her new friendship with Hazel, who is obsessed with bees and even raises bees. Through their friendship and, conveniently, a school project that was part of the plot, I brushed up against a ton of bee knowledge the way a bee might brush up against pollen — and then go on to fertilize another plant!
The human “queen bee” in this story is Meg’s best friend since kindergarten — Beatrix. As they enter middle school Meg is starting to feel a tension between what she wants to do and what Beatrix wants and does. Not surprisingly, given Beatrix’s stronger personality, things typically go Beatrix’s way. If Meg, or another of their group, does something Beatrix doesn’t like she freezes them out of the friend group, so the girls increasingly modulate their own behavior so as not to trigger that response. Yikes! One of the most compelling parts of the story is toward the end when Meg gets frozen out because she stood up for herself and wouldn’t back down. It’s intense. You totally get why someone would want to come in from that kind of cold.
Meanwhile, along comes Hazel, the new kid who has bad acne and dresses in an unconventional way. The first day Meg meets Hazel, Hazel is wearing a knitted pumpkin hat, yellow and black stripped leggings and several skinny scarves. Hers is “not an outfit of a person who doesn’t care. It’s the outfit of a person who cares about different things,” Meg observes.
Meg is intrigued by Hazel and inclined to like her, which sends Beatrix into an all-out attack/bullying mode. As things slowly and then quickly ratchet up, Meg is torn between not wanting to have to choose and knowing she will soon have to if things continue as they are.
The author, Gillian McDunn, does such a good job of showing how friendships like this can develop and what kids will do to keep a friendship intact even when things aren’t quite comfortable. The reader also gets a glimpse of some adult drama, which I enjoyed. It’s a way to point out that this kind of petty stuff doesn’t always go away. Grown-ups are better at couching it in socially acceptable ways but when Mrs. Bailey (Beatrix’s mom) campaigns to get rid of Hazel’s bees under the pretext of bees being dangerous, the reader knows this is triggered by Beatrix’s issues with Meg as much as any real safety concern. Mrs. Bailey is a grown-up version of the queen bee. We see Meg’s mom struggle with kowtowing to Mrs. Bailey, too.
In the end, Meg learns to take responsibility for the part she played in her relationship as sidekick to Beatrix’s queen bee role. The ending isn’t tied up in a neat package, but we see most of the characters grow and change. Meg, for one, learns a ton about bees, and about being a friend.