On its face, Gennifer Choldenko's first novel is the story of Kirsten, a seventh-grader whose life seems to be falling apart. She has put on a lot of weight, her parents are arguing, and, when school begins, her best friends have joined the mean girls group, leaving her alone. But there is much more to this story.
Choldenko's accessible, amusing novel in two voices turns its penetrating eye on the social vibe at a San Francisco private school and its students and families. Everyone in this moneyed society is trying to find out where he or she belongs. Kirsten narrates her chapters with a fresh, nervous, insecure voice that could be Every Nice Seventh-Grade Girl. She worries about her clothes, her backpack, her seat at lunch, the way her hair looks and her weight. She hates her giggle, her voice, the way her fat wiggles when she runs. The other narrator is a third person voice that sounds a lot like the other main character. Walk is confident, secure and not at all concerned about how others perceive him. He is new to Mountain School, a black kid from the decaying City School, on scholarship.
Brianna, the blonde Alpha-girl, will be recognizable to anyone who can still remember middle school. With a sneaky smile, a rich mom willing to make things happen for her little girl and a cadre of buddies longing to do her bidding, Brianna seems to have everyone wrapped around her finger, and Walk just doesn't get it. What is her power? Why does she matter?
There are so many fascinating characters in this story: mothers who are overly concerned with their social standing; students who spend more time worrying about their social life than academics; one lovely boy who is willing to sell Amway to save money for private school; adults who must come to terms with the secrets they have kept for far too long; and kids who try to figure out if they matter. This is a perfect book for classroom or parent-child book clubs. It begs to be read over and over.
Robin Smith is a second-grade teacher in Nashville. Copyright 2007 BookPage Reviews.
Horn Book Magazine Reviews 2007 #5
Two students meet outside an exclusive private school the morning seventh grade begins. Kirsten is white, with a lively, self-deprecating sense of humor that's revealed through her first-person narration. Newcomer Walker is "bla -- African American," as Kirsten's status-conscious mom says, and his parts of the alternating narration are in third person. As the story begins, Kirsten is consumed by the defection of her best friend Rory (now hanging out with the mean girls), by her parents' fierce fighting, and by the significant weight she's gained. Walk's worries revolve around his conspicuousness at his almost-all-white school and the strict rules his mother imposes on him. Initially, the book seems to be a conventional school story, but two-thirds of the way through it takes a sudden twist, and all that has happened previously is seen in a new light. Choldenko explores themes of racism and wealth with subtlety and insight (as when the reader realizes just as Walk does that Kirsten is very rich and doesn't even know it). The structure can be challenging at first, with a large cast of family and friends to sort out, but the funny, thoughtful protagonists, the vivid middle-school setting, and the honest portrayal of the characters, even the adults, make it well worth the effort. Copyright 2007 Horn Book Magazine Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2007 August #2
Kirsten and Walk start the first day of seventh grade with one thing in common: They're both late. This earns them a detention together, and they strike up an easy friendship, which seems to make their mothers uneasy for some reason. Could it be that Walk is the only black kid at the very private school? Or that Kirsten shows signs of an eating disorder, has lost her best friend to the wiles of the rich and snobby Brianna Hanna-Hines and seems to have no desire to fit in with the popular crowd? Choldenko's talent for characters and conversation brings the two voices instantly to life in alternating points of view (Kirsten's chapters in first-person, Walk's in third, for a slight off-kilter feeling). The story of familiar middle-school tribulations is engaging, but fails to pick up steam until it lands in a late surprise twist. Completely without foreshadowing, it adds both gravitas and clarity to the entire story, which turns out to be about privilege, perception and the fallibility of parents. This will appeal to a wide range of middle-school readers and would make a great book-club or classroom discussion. (Fiction. 11-14) Copyright Kirkus 2007 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
Library Media Connection Reviews 2008 January
This starts out like many middle school sagas: Kirsten is completely miserable. She was looking forward to seventh grade, but her best friend has dumped her in favor of the cool kids, her parents are fighting all the time, and the 30 extra pounds she's packed on aren't helping. However, Kirsten begins spending time with different people, including a new boy, Walk, one of only three African American kids in their upper-scale private school. Just as the friendship gets going, Kirsten discovers that her father also fathered Walk. Now Kirsten, Walk, and their families must redefine their self-concepts, their relationships, and their lives. The tale is told in two voices: Kirsten's first-person narrative alternates with Walk's third-person, present-tense storyline. The plot develops credibly; most of the characters are fully developed, including Walk's mother and Kirsten's little sister, and the middle school social scene is captured perfectly. Readers will recognize the settings and empathize with Kirsten's and Walk's emotional upheavals. The book ends on a positive note: Kirsten, Walk, and all of the adults begin to reach out to each other, and Walk handles an especially intrusive inquiry about his parentage with humor and restraint. Recommended. Kathleen McBroom, Media Specialist, Dearborn (Michigan) Public Schools © 2008 Linworth Publishing, Inc.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2007 July #2
The latest from Newbery Honor author Choldenko is an earnest contemporary story about race, set in a California middle school. Told from the alternating viewpoints of Kirsten, the overweight daughter of a doctor, and Walk (short for Walker), son of a striving single mother, the issues raised are spot-on for this age group. Kirsten's world, micromanaged by her overly involved mother, is battered by her parents' fighting and her best friend Rory's newfound chumminess with queen bee Brianna. Walk has been separated from his friends by his mother's decision to send him to private school on scholarship. One of only three African-American students at Mountain School, his outsider status makes him approachable to Kirsten, whose falling-out with Rory leaves her in dire need of lunch-hour companionship. This under-the-microscope examination of the often cruel, always dramatic dynamics of junior high will be enough to pull many readers through to the provocative if melodramatic revelation about the real connection between Walk and Kirsten. The humor that fueled much of Choldenko's Al Capone Does My Shirts is missing here, and her choice to tell Kirsten's story in first person and Walk's chapters in third person makes the narrative a little choppy. But the questions she raises about identity, race, prejudice and the true nature of friendship should provide ample food for thought. Ages 10-up. (Sept.)[Page 167]. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Gr 5-8-- A lack of friends and being overweight dominate Kirsten's thoughts as she enters seventh grade at Mountain, a prestigious private school in California. Rory, her good friend since kindergarten, suddenly deserts her in order to join a group of popular girls. More troublesome are Kirsten's parents, who are not speaking to each other. Her mother knows that her daughter is suffering but offers little understanding. She urges her to diet and to hang out with the girls who are rich, thin, and mean. On the first day of school Kirsten and a new boy, Walk, an African American, are both late. He already feels out of place, since he is distinctly in the minority. Both of them have to attend Saturday detention. There, Brianna, the snooty leader of the pack, gets Kirsten into serious trouble by putting the teacher's wallet into her backpack. Only Walk defends her. Alternating chapters between Kirsten's and Walk's point of view, Choldenko convincingly covers the middle school scene but does not hit her stride until the middle of the book when she drops a bombshell. The sparkling characterization and touches of humor are real pluses. Family dynamics and socioeconomics are delineated by contrasting Walk's single mom's difficult life to Kirsten's ultra comfortable life in the suburbs. Money, however, doesn't insulate Kirsten from the pain of relationships gone sour. Nor does lack of money make Walk any less brilliant in observing life around him. Racism, snobbery, prejudice, and honesty are part of the tumultuous twists that ultimately convince Kirsten that, indeed, she does matter.--Lillian Hecker, Town of Pelham Public Library, NY[Page 112]. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.