Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Book Review: The Battle of Darcy Lane by Tara Altebrando (2014)

It seems like there is one book every year that feels like it was written just for me. For 2014, that book is The Battle of Darcy Lane. Main character Julia is looking forward to a summer of fun with her neighbor and best friend, Taylor. Taylor's plans change immediately, however, when a new girl named Alyssa moves to the neighborhood. Both Alyssa and Taylor are cruel to Julia in big and small ways, putting her down as they assert their own supposed maturity and coolness, prank calling her house, and challenging her to play a complicated ball game called Russia, at which Alyssa is an expert. Throughout the summer, Julia struggles with her conflicting desires to be accepted by the other girls and to seek revenge on them for how poorly they treat her. In the meantime, she defies her parents' rules regarding an inappropriate television show, reevaluates the worthiness of some of her other, immature friends, develops a crush on a boy in the neighborhood, and deals with the possibility that her parents might want another child.

This book does absolutely everything right. Therefore, in lieu of a review, here are several reasons to love this book:
  • Parental involvement. In this book, Julia is not left to deal with everything on her own. Rather, she has supportive, loving parents who are perceptive enough to know when something is wrong and involved enough to persist when Julia is not immediately forthcoming with the problem. Julia's mother, especially, is understanding of the situation, and empathetic at some moments to the point of tears. She represents that adult mindset that knows it will all eventually be okay, but she is not completely immune to the way the girls' cruel treatment affects her daughter. As the daughter of a woman who once volunteered to turn the garden hose on bullies marching up and down in front of my house, I was pleased to see a mom character who was present, involved, and invested. 
  • Normalized religion. I made a post on my Tumblr account months ago about #weneeddiversebooks as it relates to the treatment of religion. This book, while not at all about religion, mentions in passing a number of times that Julia has gone to Mass with her mom. It's wonderful to see a Catholic character portrayed as a normal person with normal problems, rather than as a plot device specifically focused on bigotry or acceptance. I would have loved seeing those references when I was in the target age range for this book. Being religious is a normal part of life for many kids, and it's great to see that represented in such a mainstream book.
  • Realistic cruelty. Sometimes books with "mean girls" in them go overboard with the specific ways those girls are cruel. This book does a great job with the subtlety girls use to hurt each other, and with the emotional rollercoaster Julia experiences as Taylor and Alyssa seem to change their minds about her on a daily basis. The prank calls were an especially good choice, as they represent the secret, underhanded way girls sometimes behave in these situations, and they show the caller's complete disregard for not just Julia but her family as well. 
  • Cicadas. This story is set during a summer where cicadas are expected to hatch. Kids are fascinated by the idea of cicadas, so from the standpoint of attracting readers alone, this is a strength of this book. Beyond that, though, the anticipation of the cicadas, the excitement of their arrival, and their slow dissipation give the novel a natural rise and fall that matches the rise and fall of the plot. Though the cicadas are expected from early in the book, their involvement in the story does not feel forced, and any metaphorical connections to Julia's situation are very subtle. 
  • Russia. The game of Russia provides perfect tension throughout this book. It's the kind of thing that everyone wants to be able to do when they see someone else doing it, and Julia's desire to beat Alyssa at the game builds the rivalry between those two characters. Tween friendship can be a competitive sport unto itself, and Russia just gives that sense of wanting to be the best a physical manifestation for the sake of the story. The author also provides the thirteen steps of the game at the back of the book, which is sure to encourage every girl who reads the story to at least give it a try. 
  • End of Daze. This is the television show that Taylor and Alyssa watch, and which Julia is forbidden to watch, but sees anyway with a neighbor boy. Every kid has a story about sneak-watching a show against their parents' wishes, and even though the show was invented for this story, the plot lines Julia describes are very realistic and reminiscent of shows real kids are not likely to be allowed to watch if their parents are particularly protective regarding media consumption. 
  • Cell phones. Julia, at age twelve, does not have a cell phone! So many middle grade novels assume that all kids have them, and need them, and this book sends the opposite message. Julia's lack of a phone also serves as yet another barrier which separates her from coolness in Alyssa's eyes, and the fact that Julia's mother doesn't just go out and buy her one to help her fit in sends a wonderful message to readers who might be a lot like Julia. 
The book that helped me through my own traumatic friendship experiences in the 1990s was Just As Long As We're Together by Judy Blume, which I read and read  until the cover nearly fell off. The Battle of Darcy Lane is that book for the 2010s. Girls will see themselves, their lives, and their feelings in this book and they will relish the knowledge that though they may feel isolated, they are by no means alone. I also loved Roomies, which is co-authored by Tara Altebrando, so now I'm really looking forward to her future books!

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