Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Agony of Alice

As you've seen here and here, I'm reading the Alice series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.  I had read a few books in the series and loved them, and I'd always intended to read them all.  The Agony of Alice was the first book in the series, written in 1985.

It takes place after Alice, her father and older brother have moved to Silver Spring.  Alice will be beginning sixth grade in a new school - a daunting task for anyone.  Alice is no exception - she is looking at herself and feeling very self-conscious.  She is embarrassed by some of the situations she finds herself in - like when she asked a neighbor to play Tarzan and Jane with her so she could kiss him, and then changed her mind at the last minute.  Naylor is very tuned in to Alice's tween personality and fluctuating emotions, and I think any girl of this age will relate to Alice.  Even as an adult, I can remember feeling self-conscious, awkward and unsure of myself at Alice's age.

However what makes Alice different than most girls is the absence of her mother.  While Alice's mom died seven years ago, when Alice was four, but that doesn't mean that Alice misses her any less at this point in her life.  In fact, Alice is sure that a mother would have helped steer her away from the embarrassing situations Alice seems to find herself in.  Her mother's death is part of what makes up Alice's personality.  I love that Lester (who is older, and thus remembers their mother more clearly) shares his memories with Alice, who remembers very little of her.  The family spends a lot of time bringing their mother to life - a healthy way to grieve but also honor her.

As these books go on, it is evident that Alice's father is slightly out of depth with Alice.  Alice gets her period in this novel, and luckily it happens at her aunt's house.  When she gets home, her dad mentions it awkwardly, and Alice knows that however she feels about it, she wants to make her father comfortable.  She reassures him matter of factly that everything's okay, and he is visibly relieved.

Alice finds herself grasping for guidance that she might have gotten from her mother.  She is disappointed when she arrives at her new school to find she's been assigned to Mrs. Plotkin's room.  She instantly dislikes Mrs. Plotkin, based on her name and shape.   Alice wants nothing more than to be in the beautiful, young teacher's classroom, but as the year progresses, Mrs. Plotkin turns out to be the teacher Alice needs and much more.  The name Mrs. Plotkin is so evocative, but her true personality is revealed and she is wonderful.  Naylor provides a gentle lesson for readers, but in a warm way.

Many of the recurring characters in this series are already onstage in this novel - Alice's father has memorable female employees vying for his attention; Lester has two girlfriends who he will go back and forth between throughout the series.  Alice is observing what it is like to be a woman in all these situations, and it is a diverse group that influences her.  Alice has already met the girls who will be her best friends, Pamela and Elizabeth.  And then there's Patrick, Alice's "boyfriend" - "On the way to school the next morning, Patrick threw another candy bar toward me, a Three Musketeers.  This time I was so nervous I dropped it,...and after that , I guess we were going together." (p. 94)  So sixth grade!!

This book introduces new feelings and ideas to tween girls, but it is done in such a friendly, comforting way.  Yet another terrific book about growing up by Naylor.

The Agony of Alice.  Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.  Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1985.
borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

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