Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Book Review: Meaning Well by Sheila R. Cole (1975)

Meaning Well is a middle grade novella published in 1975, which I discovered by way of  a post from @yearlingreads, one of my favorite accounts on Instagram, and then borrowed from Open Library. It is the story of a sixth grader named Lisa who wants more than anything to impress her best friend, Susan, who is popular among her classmates but sometimes cruel to those who are not as popular. In the first scene of the book, a class presentation is interrupted by an outburst by the father of Peggy, a girl in the sixth grade class who is a poor student. Rumors begin to fly about Peggy's family, making accusations about drunkenness, and though Lisa wants to reach out to Peggy, her friendship with Susan makes it difficult. When Lisa attends Peggy's birthday party, however, she realizes that she enjoys the girl's company, and that of her family as well. Now Lisa must make a choice, one that will show her the difference between meaning well and actually doing the right thing.

If this plot feels a little bit familiar, it's probably because you have also read The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, which was published in 1944. Of course, bullying is the subject of many books for this age group, so it's not unusual for two books published 30 years apart to have the same general theme, but there are enough similarities between these two specific stories that I think Meaning Well must have been a tribute, or at least a response to the earlier Estes book. Not only are the endings basically the same, but they also involve characters with similar names. The bullying victim in The Hundred Dresses is named Wanda Petronski, while Lisa's last name in Meaning Well is Petrovsky. I think it must be more than coincidence that these names only differ by two letters.

On its own merits, Meaning Well is believable and well-written. The situations described in the story rang true to my experiences in elementary school in the late '80s and early '90s, and I imagine to experiences of many people who grew up during the '70s as well. (Valentines were handled a little differently in the '80s - by then you were required to bring one for every classmate, not just the ones you liked - but that was the only thing that seemed a little off to me.) There are always Susans and Lisas and Peggys, and sixth grade does seem to be the year that they begin to settle into their roles. The girls who play these roles in this book come across as real kids and there are lot of subtle references to familial and socioeconomic differences among the three that clearly feed into their interactions with one another. When it comes to reflecting real life at the time of its publication, this book really succeeds.

Still, I feel a little bit like this book steals some of the thunder from The Hundred Dresses, which is a great book that doesn't feel as outdated as one might think based on its age, and which has something distinctive about it that just doesn't wear off with age. Certainly I think girls who like books of this type would enjoy both (as well as Blubber, which really drives home the anti-bullying message more than any other book), but it would be a shame not to read The Hundred Dresses first. Personally, though, I think older books handle this topic much better than newer ones, and I would not hesitate to share this with a girl who finds herself involved in a bullying scenario, whether she is the bully, the bystander, or the victim herself. 

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