the best friends you’ll never have

Browsing in other books

I’d like to preface this by saying that I don’t know much about autism, so please let me know if anything is inaccurate so I can fix it.

Inside Out is a book that I ended up liking a lot more than I thought I would. It becomes pretty clear early on, if you’ve read Kristy and the Secret of Susan, what this book is going to be about. Jonathan “Jonno” Peterson is an eleven-year-old boy with a nine-year-old sister, Lizzie, and a four-year-old brother, James. James is autistic, and his autism appears to have much in common with Susan Felder’s. James “shut down” at about the same age as Susan did, and also doesn’t really communicate or do much by himself. The Peterson family is able to start James at a special school, where he will be worked with intensely so that the family can possibly avoid Susan’s fate of being sent away, as this book bluntly puts it, to an institution.

In order to help the family afford this schooling, both Jonno and Lizzie find ways to earn money. Jonno also, with the help of a Kristy-esque friend, puts on a neighborhood carnival, and donates the money to the school that James attends. He gets a newspaper article written about him, which earns him the adulation of his classmates. This is another theme in the book: not being one of “cool” kids. Throughout the book, Jonno and his friends struggle with the “cool” kids in their class, especially when a child named Edward, or “Edweird,” joins their class.

The only thing we know about Edward is that this is his first year in a mainstream classroom, and he seems to dress in costumes and speak formally. I don’t know if we are supposed to understand that is he is on the autism spectrum. It’s never really explained. Jonno at first makes fun of Edward to fit in, but then stands up for both himself and Edward at the carnival. I do feel like more could have been done with this part of the story. I do think that, surprisingly, Ann was able to write from the perspective of an eleven-year-old boy. The characters in this book are more realistic and flawed than you might expect from her. Writing from a male perspective also I think tempered some of her “Ann-ness;” i.e., there is nary an I Love Lucy reference to be found. It makes me wish for more Ann books from unusual perspectives.

If you compare this book to Secret of Susan, at first glance, the Peterson family seems much more loving and involved in James’s life. But I think we have to keep a few things in mind. First, Secret is told from the perspective of someone outside the family. Kristy doesn’t know the heartache that led the Felders to conclude that Susan would be better off with professional care. Second, Susan is three years older than James, and it is hinted that Susan’s fate is still a very real possibility for James. I think that, like one of the posters on the BSC Boards said, if Hope Felder had been the older sibling and the narrator of Secret, we would have ended up with a very similar book.

Stray thoughts:

  • Okay, this is basically something that the book ignores, but to me is a Chekhov’s gun. Lizzie is mentioned as often spending time with a 15-year-old neighbor boy, Wendell. What 15-year-old boy is spending time with a nine-year-old girl, catching minnows?! It is treated as a positive thing at the end that Lizzie is spending less time with Wendell, and this makes it sound even more shady to me.
  • I thought it was interesting how Termite, one of Jonno’s friends, doesn’t like being around James, and he is not regarded as a bad person for this, but rather with understanding.

  • Has anybody read A Corner of the Universe? How does the treatment of autism in that book compare? (If you are reading this later on and you’ve read Rain Reign, I’d be interested in your thoughts on that as well.)
  • James’s school uses hugs as a reward, which contradicts the little I know about autism and even what we later learn from Susan Felder, when she uses the hug machine in European Adventure.

    External links:
    Are You There, Youth? It’s Me, Nikki on Inside Out

  • If you’re reading along with me, on Monday I am going to post about Inside Out. Tomorrow I will be doing a post on the fortuitous rerelease of Ann’s early books by Scholastic that is happening on April 22nd, so be on the lookout for that as well.

    I’m not sure what format will work best for this, so bear with me.

    Bummer Summer is Ann’s first book, published in 1983. It is about Kammie Whitlock, a twelve-year-old girl whose widower father (sound familiar?) marries Kate, a college professor (who is 25 or 26 and lacks a doctorate, and oh god I’m older than the stepmom is this book). Kate has a three-year-old daughter named Melissa, or “Muffin,” and a two-month-old unnamed baby boy from her first marriage.

    This book proves that the fact that the adults in Stoneybrook seem to get divorced and remarried at lightning-fast speed is not a fluke of the time warp. Kammie is introduced to her dad’s new girlfriend at Thanksgiving, and they’re married by summer vacation.

    My whole perception of this book was colored by how terrible Kate and her father are. Basically, Kammie, like any normal adolescent would, has trouble adjusting to the fact that her dad, the only parent she has, has remarried and is feeling replaced, plus she has siblings for the first time in her life. So what the adults in this situation do? Instead of trying to understand what Kammie is going to, they ship her off to camp. WTF. Way to make your daughter feel even more abandoned/replaced.

    So anyway, Kammie goes to camp. She is there on a trial basis–she has to go for two weeks, and if she doesn’t like it, she can come home. Kammie seems immature for twelve, but honestly, that probably means she is written realistically, and not as a mini-adult like the BSC. She makes bad decisions and gets in trouble and acts kind of bratty sometimes. Kammie has some trouble adjusting to camp, and especially doesn’t like changing in front of the other girls or having to serve food (afraid to spill something/be in front of everyone else), and I thought these were pretty realistic for the age.

    As she is at camp, her stepmother writes her letters and this seems to help with their relationship. (It also would have helped if they had let the kid stay at home and adjust to her new family.) By the time Visiting Day rolls around (this camp has them every two weeks; is that normal?), everything is hunky-dory, both with the family and with her time at camp. She is enjoying herself, the baby gets a name, everyone is happy.

    This book has been mentioned by several people as being one that they liked a lot out of Ann’s early books. This does not bode well for the rest of the Readalong, since I found myself rushing through this one. I think Kammie was perhaps more multi-dimensional than we often see in BSC, and more imperfect, but I think my enjoyment of this book was spoiled by the fact that I didn’t read it as a child. I think that when you’re a kid, you don’t usually question the decisions of parents and other adults in books, unless the author gives you clues that these adults are supposed to understood as villains. Kammie’s dad and stepmom’s decision to send her off during a time of turmoil when Kammie has a lot of feelings of jealousy and abandonment is surely something that Kammie ended up discussing with a therapist.

    Stray thoughts:

  • Kammie and Kate go shopping at the Quakerbridge Mall, but they’re supposed to be living somewhere in New England, not New Jersey. Quakerbridge doesn’t even make sense as the name of a road in New England, since Quakers were not welcomed there! They were persecuted! She should have really just set her books in New Jersey and specifically in the Princeton area if she wanted to write what she knew, and didn’t feel like doing research about the locales she was writing about.
  • As someone who has been very resistant to preppiness her whole life, I very much appreciated the “Save an alligator, eat a preppy” shirt, even if “preppy” meant more modern Abercrombie&Fitch than the Abercrombie&Fitch from The Official Preppy Handbook by the time I got to middle school.
  • Camp Arrowhead has a lot of features in common with Camp Mohawk, such as the curtain around the counselor’s bed. Also there is a festival with a name that no one can remember, just like Lake Dekanawida and all of the jokes about its name.
  • The plot with Susie reminded me of Mallory’s problems with Alexis at Riverbend. New girl comes, everyone likes her, girl who has been rejected by her peers acts out by destroying something important of new girl’s (Mallory: collage from BSC; Kammie: quilt she’s making for Baby Boy). Mallory is nicer to Alexis than Kammie is to Susie, though.
  • The Whitlocks are LOADED. Kammie’s mom had ceramic placecards for dinner parties, and their house is mentioned as having three floors plus an attic like it is nothing. Kammie is also taken on a Lacoste shopping spree at the aforementioned Quakerbridge Mall, making her t-shirt all the more ironic. Lacoste is basically just a really big deal in this book. Susie also has a Lacoste towel.
  • Who doesn’t name a baby for months and months?

    External Links:
    Are You There Youth? It’s Me, Nikki on Bummer Summer
    Review from 1983 in Kirkus Reviews

  • One thing that may surprise some of you is that I have never read Ann’s pre-BSC books. I think they were already out of print by the time I started reading BSC, and for some reason, I never got them out of the library. So I’ve decided that I’m going to sit down and read the ones I have–I have all but Slam Book. I’ve decided to do it readalong style, which means that I’ll let everyone know what I’ll be reading that week, and then a post will go up on Monday with my thoughts on the book. So if you’d like, you can read with me and then come and discuss it in the comments on Monday, or on a thread I made on the BSC Boards.

    The first post will go up next Monday, and it will be on Bummer Summer.

    Happy reading!

    Sweet Valley Confidential, the long-awaited “reunion” book for the Sweet Valley High universe, came out this week, a cause for much excitement for twenty- and thirty-somethings who grew up with Liz and Jess.

    Shockingly to some, Sweet Valley was never my thing. I started with BSC at age six, and I think my mom felt that I was too young for Sweet Valley High, too advanced a reader for Kids, and dear god just look at all the spinny racks of Francine Pascal; I AM ALREADY LINING ANN M. MARTIN’S COFFERS EVERY MONTH. CHOOSE ONE. So I think the number of SV books I ended up reading adds up to less than ten.

    I bought Sweet Valley Confidential anyway, because I needed some light reading on my Kindle, I’m running out of trashy celebrity tell-alls, and Meg Cabot’s new book isn’t out until the middle of the month. (SO excited for Abandon!) I actually haven’t finished reading it yet, because having never really been a fan, it’s just not as much as a page-turner for me as it for those who grew up wanting to be size six blonde beauties with eyes the color of the California ocean. Or alternatively, Lila Fuckin’ Fowler. Anyway, I am only like a third or so of the way through, which is unusual for me because in third grade my teacher called me a liar because I read faster than she did.

    The question that SVC brings up for me, of course, is whether such a book would work for the BSC. We already have the The Summer Before, which I think works okay as a prequel, even though I don’t like how it messed with canon a bit. Ann has pretty much categorically denied that there will ever be a book featuring the Sitters after eighth grade graduation, but she also had, in the past, said that there won’t be ANY new books featuring the girls, and we got The Summer Before, so let’s examine the possbilities and the logistics.

    A book like Confidential, with the girls aged ten years or so? I honestly have a hard time seeing it work, and wouldn’t even really want it. I like that we can explore our own ideas for the girls’ futures in fan fiction, and it’s not set in stone that so and so got married/divorced/had babies/came out/became an executive/became a ne’er do well who never moved out of his parents’ basement (Hi, Logan!). Also, frankly, I don’t really see Ann has an adult/chick lit writer, or even a writer for an older YA audience. I don’t think she’s really a writer who wants to deal with sex, drugs, alcohol, and more adult topics. I think she handled more “adult” storylines deftly in Main Street, but in a PG fashion. I just don’t see her wanting to introduce adulthood to the BSC.

    I can see a Confidential-type book working, however, for California Diaries. It would be THE BEST THING EVER. Bring in Peter Lerangis to write it! The CD books were always more adult than BSC, and touched on issues in a way that would shock the shit out of Stoneybrook. So yes, bring on Palo City Confidential!

    I do think that a BSC-in-High School book or miniseries would work. Maybe bring Stoneybrook up to Palo City-levels of issues beyond “Wow, why do all of the parents in Stoneybrook suck?” Bring in a little bit of sex and controversy, just not as much as in the adult lives as our Sweet Valley friends. This is, I think, the most likely scenario for any kind of BSC reunion book.

    Ann has said that she has no plans to write a reunion book, and prefers that readers are able to imagine the girls’ future themselves. But she had also said that she would never write a new BSC book of any kind, and we ended up with The Summer Before anyway. Sweet Valley Confidential seems to be doing pretty well, if the excitement across the non-fandom blogosphere is any indication. Scholastic might take note of the possible very large dollar signs. The problem with The Summer Before is that it is very much a book aimed at middle grade readers. Parents who were fans as children might want to buy it for their kids, kids might be interested in it, and super diehard nostalgists might want it, but it’s not something that most adults would buy for themselves. Whereas Sweet Valley Confidential appeals to both teenage readers who weren’t around for SVH the first time around AND to readers who are now adults, who are ok with reading a trashy novel about people in their own age group. While a book about high schoolers isn’t quite the same thing, I can see people wanting to know what happened to the girls once they finally graduated from eighth grade, after a sisyphean thirteen-year run.

    What do you think of the BSC’s reunion book possibilities?

    When I was a kid, I never read any of Ann’s non-BSC books, not until P.S. Longer Letter Later came out. Why, I’m not sure. In my elementary school’s library they were shelved right next to the BSC books, and I would pretty much read any chapter book I could get my hands on as long as it was not fantasy, horror, or sports.

    But I’ve started reading them recently, and maybe it’s because I didn’t grow up with them, as other people’s responses, the responses of those who did read them as children, are much more enthusiastic than my own. So far I’ve read Stage Fright, With You and Without You, and Missing Since Monday. I made an unsuccessful stab at Ten Kids, No Pets, but got bored, and plus I was reading a British or Australian edition* and trying to change all the “mum”s to “mom”s was irritating me. Stage Fright was ok, but nothing special, and I felt that the other two weren’t quite as deep, emotionally, as they should have been, considering their serious subject matter. And they both used dates with boys as the bandaid to the really terrible and tragic situations which occurred in the books, which seems odd to me. If my dad died or my little sister went missing, god forbid, I would be FLIPPING MY SHIT. The protagonists of these books seemed to almost take things in stride.

    I still really want to read Slam Book. It seems so dark! But reading these early Ann books and comparing them with, say, Main Street (I haven’t read Belle Teal or A Corner of the Universe or any of her other recent books, but they seem to be doing well and winning awards so I assume that they’re pretty good books)… I can really see how Ann has grown and matured as a writer.

    What do you think about Ann’s early books? Did you read them as a child or only as an adult or not at all?’

    *sorry to my non-American friends, but I really hate reading BSC in non-American English!

    Over the past few months I’ve taken to reading 1bruce1 as I am falling asleep. Here’s the thing about the SV universe and me: I read one or two Sweet Valley Kids as a kid (the one about the Orchid Club is the one I really remember), read Elizabeth’s Diary and then one of the ones in the trilogy about modelling/fashion magazines much later. But that’s pretty much it. It seems strange to me now that I never really got into Sweet Valley. I remember really enjoying the Sweet Valley Kids books I had.

    I suppose it comes down to the fact that for the other series I read–BSC, GirlTalk, Saddle Club–my mother had enrolled me in book clubs where three books were sent to my house once a month. I also remember her believing that I was a bit too young for Sweet Valley High when I was in elementary school. I suppose the question is would I have like SV better than Stoneybrook, had I ended up actually buying the books and reading them? In BSC, although I suppose I felt differently when I was the age of the clients, I am bored by the baby-sitting and prefer the “Stacey” kinds of plots, dealing with drama and boy troubles and shopping. This is more along the lines of Sweet Valley-esque stuff. But then again there is something that just seems… trashier about Sweet Valley.

    I suppose that we’ll never know, as I don’t feel like starting another book collection and reading the 1bruce1 snarks is entertaining enough for me. But for those of you who read both, which do you like better and why? How would you compare them?

    Last night I discovered that not only have I read Ann M. Martin books, I’ve also read a book by Jane Read Martin, Now Everybody Really Hates Me:


    This was one of my favorites as a kid. Did anyone else read it? Did you realize it was written by Ann’s sister?

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