Thursday, March 3, 2011

Book Reviews: The Secret Language of Girls (2004) & The Kind of Friends We Used to Be (2009) by Frances O'Roark Dowell

You could share a history with a person, know their mom and their little brother and what kind of laundry detergent they used [...] but the second that person became a middle school cheerleader, forget it. It's like all that stuff never existed.
-Frances O'Roark Dowell, The Kind of Friends We Used To Be, page 19

I can't even count at this point the number of  times I've been drawn to Frances O'Roark Dowell's books. I have handled them in libraries and bookstores quite a few times, but somehow always managed to brush them aside in favor of reading something newer, or something in a different genre.

Finally, though, I pulled The Secret Language of Girls from the library shelf on my lunch break the other day, and I knew, when I read more than 100 pages in 45 minutes, that I was definitely a fan.

The Secret Language of Girls is the story of a changing friendship as main characters Marylin and Kate enter middle school and begin to grow apart. As someone who went through the difficulties of such changes at the age of 11 and 12, I was both surprised and thrilled by how much of my own life seemed to be represented in the story. I was also touched, unexpectedly, when this book actually helped me to better understand the torment and trauma that I endured.

I love that the book is written from multiple points of view. Not only do we hear from Kate and Marylin, who are both extremely sympathetic voices, but we also get more objective commentary on what's happening from Marylin's brother Petey, and her new friend, Flannery, as well as Kate's non-conformist dining companion,  Paisley, and others of the girls' classmates. while it was somewhat predictable that the middle school cheerleaders would be at the top of the popularity food chain, the cliches in this book didn't bother me, because Dowell described  everything so specifically, and in a style all her own.

Especially realistic and powerful was the scene where Marylin and Flannery give Kate the silent treatment for no apparent reason. I remember the frustration associated with being ignored, and Dowell took me right back to the middle school classrooms where the same thing happened to me. She has a wonderful talent for making the universal feel personal, and vice versa.

The sequel, The Kind of Friends We Used To Be, builds upon the framework established by the first book. Marylin and Kate are no longer sworn enemies, but their changing interests - Marylin's in student government and Kate's in songwriting - keep them from crossing paths as much as they once did. The cliches aren't as prevalent in the second book, and what struck me as the book's greatest strength was the inclusion of so many different kids, representing all the many cliques and special interests that emerge among early adolescents. Whereas Paisley, the non-conformist in the first book, might feel like she was plopped into the story to serve a specific purpose, and  then yanked out again, the supporting characters in The Kind of Friends We Used To Be have more of their own stories to tell, and they don't necessarily prescribe neat little moral lessons on how to live.

My only complaint about this second book is the author's continual use, both in dialogue, and narration of the phrases "all of the sudden" and "all the sudden."  I know that these are now somewhat commonly used phrases, but to my knowledge, the only correct way to say it is "all of a sudden." Every single time I saw "all the sudden," I cringed and was pulled out of the action of the story.

Overall, though, I think these books are both perfect middle school reads. I've been mentally comparing them to Judy Blume books like Blubber and Just As Long As We're Together, and I also think they would appeal to fans of Paula Danziger and Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Alice series. They'd also make an excellent (and better-written) recommendation for fans of Nancy Krulik's How I Survived Middle School series. Yes, this topic has been covered before, but I think it's always new to the kids living through it, and it's nice to have books set in the present day to recommend for today's kids.


  1. Katie, I just want to let you know how much I love your blog. I'm so glad I found such an articulate blogger who reviews MG and younger children's literature; there aren't many!

  2. Thank you, Tahleen! I'm so glad you're enjoying it.