Friday, January 11, 2019

Book Review: The Friendship War by Andrew Clements (2019)

Science-minded Grace is a collector of interesting objects, so when she asks her grandfather if she can have the thousands of old buttons she finds in the old building he just purchased, he doesn't hesitate to hand them over. When Grace brings a few of the buttons to school, however, she is unprepared for the sudden enthusiasm for buttons shown by not just her best friend, Ellie, but also her entire class! As Grace and Ellie become consumed with the excitement of crafting, playing, and trading with buttons of all varieties, they also begin to realize the problems in their friendship, namely that Ellie shows off a lot and Grace resents her for it. Before long, the button frenzy becomes less about the buttons and more about trying to one-up and get back at each other. Grace wants to end the button fad once and for all and get things back to normal, but shutting it down proves to be a lot more difficult than putting it into motion in the first place.

This school story does a great job of describing the experience of getting caught up in a fad at school. Clements gets all the details just right, including the way fads sometimes grow and change overnight, and even the reactions of teachers and administrators when a fad begins to consume too much of the students' attention. He also uses the button fad very effectively as a vehicle both for Grace and Ellie to confront the strain in their friendship, and for Grace to become better friends with another classmate named Hank, who shares her scientific interests.

The flaw in this book, though, is how much exposition there is at the start. The strong story at the heart of this book is very slow to get going. The book opens with Grace arriving for a visit with her grandfather, leading the reader to believe that this visit and this relationship will be the focus of the novel. Just as the reader begins to settle into this story, however, Grace is suddenly heading right back home, with the buttons following by mail, and it's clear that this has all just been backstory leading up to the real story the author wants to tell. Only a few of the details revealed in these early pages are even remotely relevant to the rest of the book, and it takes a while to refocus after the abrupt shift in the narrative. I also found it a little unnecessary that Grace occasionally worries about whether Hank thinks she is cute. Not every middle grade novel needs to have a dating-related subplot, even a subtle one.

The Friendship War has some positive wisdom to impart about the importance of honesty and taking ownership of one's mistakes, and about placing a greater value on people than on objects, which I really appreciated. There is also a surprising amount of information about the history of the materials used to make buttons, which becomes interesting within the context of this story. While this isn't Clements's best book, it will satisfy most readers who enjoy his realistic school stories, especially those who see some of their own experiences mirrored by the story.  (Thanks to Random House Children's and NetGalley for the digital review copy!)

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