Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Book Review: A Girl Called Al by Constance C. Greene (1969)

A Girl Called Al is the story of two tween girls, Alexandra, called Al, and her new friend, the unnamed narrator, who lives down the hall from her in their apartment building. In many ways, the two girls are quite different. Al has lived in many different places and has a single mom whom she claims not to love as much as her absentee father. Her friend has a more traditional family life - mom, dad, and younger brother - and a more traditional outlook on life in general than noncomfortist Al, who wishes to take wood shop instead of sewing and doesn't seem to care what other people think about her. The two girls spend a lot of time together, as well as with their building superintendent, who serves as a surrogate grandfather for both of them and helps them build a bookshelf.

I totally missed this series as a kid. I knew the books existed, and frequently saw them on library shelves, but I just never felt drawn to them. As an adult, though, I am intrigued by both the text, with its quirky characters, and the illustrations which, to my surprise, were drawn by Byron Barton of picture book fame. (Except for the cover. That's by JoAnne Scribner, who also did covers for the Ramona books.) I like the way the illustrations reflect Al's unique look and personality, and how they perfectly suit the sometimes-funny, sometimes-poignant tone of the story. The pictures are a bit unusual-looking, but that only makes sense for a book about an offbeat heroine.

The story itself is funny at certain points and poignant at others. There isn't necessarily a very strong story arc, but just spending time with these girls and seeing how their friendship impacts their lives is enough to sustain readers' interest for 130 pages. I also appreciate that although Al is an unusual character, the author doesn't spend the whole book calling attention to her strangeness. Unlike something like Stargirl, which beats readers over the head with its protagonist's noncomformity, this book just lets it unfold in Al's actions and allows the reader to draw her own conclusions based on the narrator's descriptions. I was  reminded a little bit of Me and Fat Glenda as I was reading, possibly because Al is described several times as "a little on the fat side," but Al is less of a dubious friend than Glenda and she is more likable overall. A Girl Called Al also seems to be largely free of the bullying and mean girl tropes that often infiltrate books of this type. There is a little bit of taunting, but it is mostly peripheral to the main story.

There are six Al books in all, and I plan to read as many of the rest as I can. They have a nostalgic charm about them that I really enjoy, and I'm curious to see how Al changes as she continues to grow up.

No comments:

Post a Comment