I remember the exact moment I was first introduced to Alice. I was commuting from library school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to work in Williamsburg, Virginia, on the weekends. It was my last semester of graduate school, and in order to maximize my time, I tried to listen to as many audiobooks as possible to fulfill my children's literature requirements. I had always loved children's books, and I had been preparing to become a children's librarian. But listening to Alice's worries and fears in Alice the Brave made me connect with the book in a way I had never previously connected with children's literature. I heard one particular conversation between Alice and her father, and it resonated with me. In this last semester, I was struggling with relationships, and something that was said felt unbearably wise. This really formed part of my overall theory of children's literature, which is that children's literature can speak to anyone, regardless of age. It also helped me form an ongoing relationship with Alice herself, which I have blogged about here. This is the book, for me, that started it all.
Interestingly, I had not ever actually read Alice the Brave, only listened to it. And although it was such a formative book for me, I'd never actually re-read it after that first time. So getting ready to read it again, I had to take a deep breath and see if I could re-discover what had made it so impressive for me in the first place. And I did. I'll quote it later. But suffice to say the advice is just as wise today as it was then.
In this book in the series, Alice and her friends are getting ready to start eighth grade. Alice is part of a close group of friends, both boys and girls, and they have spent the summer primarily at one of the group's family pool. Every time they go to the pool, Alice grows increasingly anxious. She is hiding a big secret - she's afraid of swimming in the deep end, and she has been hiding this secret from everyone she knows, including her family. Even worse, the boys in the group have begun sneaking up on the girls and dumping them into the pool. And Alice is sure her turn is next.
Even though this is a fear Alice hasn't previously disclosed to readers before, there are themes that have continued throughout the whole series. One of those themes is growing up. Alice has two best friends - Elizabeth and Pamela. Pamela is always a little ahead of Alice in relationships and life. She knows how the social scene will be in each grade and what they should all do to be popular, including whether or not they should have boyfriends. And Elizabeth is the exact opposite. She is very embarrassed about anything having to do with sex or boys. Elizabeth's mother is pregnant, and Elizabeth cannot even stand to think about how that happened. Alice is squarely in the middle - she has an on-again, off-again boyfriend, Patrick. Even when they are "off" they are best friends and continue to confide in each other and spend time together. But Alice is nowhere near as sophisticated as Pamela either. She tends to follow Pamela's lead (which has gotten her into situations she isn't ready for in other books), even when she isn't sure of what might happen.
During this book Alice and Patrick are back together. Even considering how close they are, Alice has not told Patrick about her fear of the water. He has been gone much of the summer, so it is easy to conceal. But it is almost too much to explain, especially when he asks her to join the swim team with him as a fun school activity that fall. She thinks Patrick won't understand her fear, that he will not want to be seen with her because of her inability to swim. When the whole incident finally comes to a head, Patrick is not there. So Alice has to risk rejection and explain her anxiety to him. Unsurprisingly, Patrick supports Alice and encourages her, telling her they will just have to find something else to do together if they can't join the swim team.
One of the other ongoing themes in these novels is Alice's sense of family. Alice's mother died years ago, before Alice can even remember. But she acutely misses the idea of her mother. Especially as she grapples with growing up, Alice wonders how having a mother in her life would have changed her: "I went up to my room and wondered if it was times like this a mom would come in and sit beside you. Put an arm around you and, no matter how you were feeling, say she'd felt like that once when she was your age." (p. 75) Alice, no matter how she feels about her mother, does have a great amount of support from her father and her brother Lester, who is 21. When Alice confides in Lester that she is afraid to swim in the deep end, Lester comes through for her. He takes her to a friend's pool, where no one else will see them. Lester works with Alice, giving her confidence little by little. It is a sweet moment, and while Lester is a lot older than Alice, he understands her worries, and helps her solve them without giving her all the answers.
Alice, very wisely, eventually realizes that her anxiety about swimming is hurting all of her summer, not just the time she spends at the pool. After all, what seems fairly simple affects everything she does on a daily basis. She observes "If parents knew everything that goes on in their kids' heads, they'd be really surprised, I think. Dad had no idea that I always said 'love you' before I went to Mark's pool so that if that turned out to be the day I sank to the bottom the last thing I would have said to my father was 'love you'" (p. 79). This anxiety and panic really has her in its grip. Again, this is a feeling even adults can relate to, especially the way Alice articulates what she is feeling. She realizes that "There was plenty I could do about mine [my situation], but I was too afraid to try. " (p. 90). She has to, finally, work up the courage to take her fear and face it squarely, and she does.
Alice is, of course, triumphant. But this is not the only worry Alice has in this novel. Alice's father has been dating Alice's sixth grade teacher, Miss Summers. Alice is convinced that her father will ask Miss Summers to marry him. Then it doesn't happen, which leads Alice to start asking questions about the adult relationships around her. She asks her father about why he married her mother, hoping to get an idea about what he is looking for. What he tells her at first - that he might have been happy with someone else besides her mother - scares her. But he goes on to explain "Why did I marry her? Because I knew that she was a woman I could love - that I did love...I had committed to the marriage, Al. That's what makes the difference." (p. 123). This next quote, although long, is what really resonated with me when I read this book the first time. Incredibly, it is just as meaningful to me now. "And suddenly my warm fuzzy feeling was back again, my armor for the first days of eighth grade, and all the other firsts in my life...It was the feeling...if any of the other hundred and one awful possibilities that lurked around the corner were to happen, I would take it....Because I had guts....Alice the Brave, that was me." (p. 123-4). And she IS Alice the Brave. It is a victorious ending for a wonderful, strong character. I love her just as much today. Who could ask for anything more?
Alice the Brave. Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. Aladdin Paperbacks, 1995, 1996.
from my personal collection