Monday, August 1, 2011

Jeremy Bender vs. the Cupcake Cadets

I think it’s natural that when I read middle-grade and teen fiction, I prefer to read books with girl main characters.  After all, as librarians know very well, we tend to be drawn to books that look as if the main character is their particular gender.  Boys will choose books with boys on the cover, and girls are attracted to prominently featured girls.  This is why I think even the title Jeremy Bender vs. the Cupcake Cadets is so genius.  Just with six words, Eric Luper has indicated that this book will satisfy both boys and girls.  And when readers look at the cover, they see both Jeremy and the Cupcake Cadets prominently featured, along with a neutral blue background.  Everyone on the cover has their arms crossed, showing their readiness to fight.
First – Jeremy Bender.  He’s an average 6th grader with a couple of big problems.  First, there’s his problem at school.  The problem’s name is Paul Vogler, and he is a bully who picks on Jeremy and his best friend, a skateboarder named Slater.  His second problem is much larger.  Jeremy believes that he can show his father how responsible he is by meticulously caring for his father’s prized Chris-Craft boat.  But when he and Slater bring sodas on board the boat…let’s just say there is one very sticky mess.  He needs $450 to fix the engine before his dad tries to take the boat out next summer.  But Jeremy doesn’t even have 450 pennies to his name.
This is where the Cupcake Cadets come in.  The Cupcake Cadets sponsor a model sailboat contest with a $500 prize.  The only catch?  You must be a Cupcake Cadet – and a girl – to enter and win.  Jeremy and Slater plunge right in, dressing as girls to infiltrate the Cupcake Cadet troop.  While the Cupcake Cadets seem sweet and innocent, they are not always that naïve.  The Cupcake Cadets’ song says it all “I’ll use teamwork and cooperation, and innovative thinking.  I’ll use caring and sharing, and a bit of vanilla frosting.  While the Cupcake Cadet troop fosters all of those traditional girl qualities – caring, sharing, cooperation- it also looks for innovation.  The troop rewards creativity and intelligence.  While they may not recognize Jeremy and Slater for the boys they really are (and many of the girls either go to school with them or have met them before), they reward the boys for working hard and teamwork.
And while Jeremy and Slater aren’t technically allowed to be Cupcake Cadets, they actually fulfill the tenets of the troop.  One of the biggest examples of this is a car wash the boys hold to sell their cupcakes.  The cupcakes are the Cadet equivalent of Girl Scout cookies, only much less tasty.  The boys have a lot to sell, having been manipulated into taking another Cadet’s portion along with theirs.  The boys are having a terrible time getting rid of them, until they hold a car wash, “giving” the customer a free cupcake with each wash.  They eventually get their whole troop involved in the car wash.  Slater is a good example of cooperation, caring and sharing.  After all, while he helped make the mess that landed them in the Cupcake Cadets, dressing as and impersonating a girl goes above and beyond the call of friendship.  By the time the sailboat competition comes around, the boys are far more invested in the troop than they expected.
What I love about the girls in the Cupcake Cadets is that they are smart, competitive and tough.  The Cadet who Jeremy and Slater spend the most time with is Margaret.  Margaret has won the sailboat competition for years running, and has taken an aerodynamics class this year in order to create the best sailboat.  Not only is she competitive and smart, she is ambitious as well.  Margaret is the Cadet who gets Jeremy and Slater (they are known as Jenna and Samantha within the troop) to sell all of her cupcakes along with their own.  There is a rival Cupcake Cadet troop, whose leader is out to get their troop’s leader, Mrs. Rendell.  And Jeremy’s older sister, Ruthie, an ex-Cupcake Cadet (where else would the boys get the uniforms and wigs?) is savvy and sharp.  She spends most of the novel on the phone, dispensing advice to Jeremy while cultivating gossip from everyone in her class.  Trust me, these girls are more spice than sugar, just the way we like our main characters.
Jeremy  and Slater’s predicament is laugh-out-loud funny.  It is also suspenseful.  We keep reading to find out when someone is actually going to look past their uniforms and wigs to see them for what they really are.  Among the other memorable characters is a very cool children’s librarian who is always complaining about the other librarians who don’t like children.  Librarians always appreciate seeing a great librarian character in the novel they are reading!
By the end of the book, there are resolutions to both of Jeremy’s problems, but they may not be the solutions you expect.  While the bullying issue is handled with a light hand, the boys are genuinely leery of Paul, and I believe readers will be able to empathize with their problem.  I appreciate that the solution to the bullying doesn’t include bribery, hiding out or adult involvement.  Luper gives readers another solution to dealing with bullies, and this one will resonate with kids.  All in all, this is a satisfying read for both boys and girls.  It has something to appeal to everyone!

Jeremy Bender vs. the Cupcake Cadets.  Eric Luper.  Balzer & Bray: HarperCollins, 2011.
FTC Full Disclosure: I was given this book by the publisher, hoping I would review it.

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