In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Friday, March 18, 2011

First loves: Paula Danziger

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I like Mona's working definition of chick lit.  Looking it over, I'm pleased to see that one of my other favorite YA authors fits quite nicely into the criteria Mona lays out.

I returned over and over to Paula Danziger's novels because I had so much fun reading them.  Most of them focus on truly dysfunctional families, and my favorites have ugly-duckling heroines with low self-esteem who turn out to be more interesting (and attractive to the right sensitive, intelligent guys) than the people who seem at first to be more popular.  Danziger's supporting characters are also awesome.

The Danziger book I reread more than any other is The Pistachio Prescription.  In it, 13-year-old Cassandra (Cassie) Stephens feels like an unattractive outsider in her attractive but dysfunctional family (she is flat-chested, and has mousy brown hair and asthma.  Boy, could I relate!).  Cassie finds solace in eating red pistachio nuts; hence, the title.  The action takes place just before and during Cassie's first year of high school.  Her parents are fighting like crazy, she and her perfect older sister don't get along, her younger brother is a sweetheart and collects animals, and her friends convince her to run for freshman class president.  There is a cute boy involved.  Cassie is a sarcastic, angry, funny narrator.  I don't have the book on me right now, so I'm stealing this excerpt from a nice review on the blog the stacks my destination:
I personally think all math teachers buy their clothes with the chalk dust already on them. Either that or they buy them clean and immediately step up against a blackboard, like the way lots of kids step all over brand-new sneakers to get them to look old. I personally think that math stinks. I can’t do it. Artists shouldn’t have to take it if they don’t want to. Meyerson the Messy is too fast. If I ever need to know anything about the dumb subject, I can use a calculator or hire someone.
   In history class, we have to write about “The American Who Means the Most to Me Historically.” Definitely one of the dippiest assignments I’ve ever gotten. I write about Lizzie Borden. 
My second-favorite Danziger book is her first novel, The Cat Ate My Gymsuit.  The heroine, Marcy Lewis, is overweight and not particularly popular.  She doesn't want to change for gym in front of other people because of her weight, so she makes up excuses not to participate (there's the title).  Her father is verbally and emotionally abusive to her, her mom, and her brother -- Danziger goes for the gut with the dysfunctional family stuff.  Marcy's life gets better when she connects with a fantastic and somewhat unorthodox English teacher, Ms. Finney.  There is a cute, sensitive boy.  The drama comes when Ms. Finney is suspended from teaching because of her refusal to say the Pledge of Allegiance, and Marcy is caught up in the fight to protest her dismissal.  Marcy gets more vocal and sure of herself, even standing up to her father about it.  Ms. Finney is reinstated, and then promptly resigns because of the atmosphere she'd be returning to.  Marcy is crushed -- another good exploration of a teenager working through understanding the disappointing actions of an adult she's seen as a perfect role model.  There's a sequel, There's a Bat in Bunk Five, in which Marcy's romantic relationship continues, Ms. Finney returns, and Marcy works for the summer as a C.I.T. at sleepaway camp (action during the summer!).

The primary thing I returned to Danziger for was pure enjoyment of her writing -- her narrators' sarcastic, self-deprecating tones, the combination of romance and humor.  Looking back on her books, though, I wonder if I was also attracted to the grittiness of the family problems she incorporated.  There aren't easy answers in her books -- parents get divorced (I also read, and enjoyed, The Divorce Express, about two girls who become friends riding  the bus from one parent's home upstate to the other parent's home in the city); new relationships are kind of awkward and don't quite work as well as you might hope.  The endings are happy for the heroines, mostly, but they're almost always bittersweet.

The one other Danziger book I returned to multiple times goes against most of what I've said above.  I don't know why I liked it so much, but a huge amount of the plot and details have stayed with me, so I must have read it a ton. This Place Has No Atmosphere is set in 2057.  14-year-old Aurora is pretty and popular and very happy with her life -- until her parents decide to move the family as settlers to the moon!  She is removed from her social life!  She must limit herself to 3-minute showers!  There are no cute boys!  But wait, there's one kind of nerdy guy who maybe isn't so bad....  It is a silly book.  It is chick lit.  And it's a really fun read.

Love, Annie

1 comment:

  1. I loved all the Danziger books mentioned here too. (Surprise: Annie and I once again share the same taste!)