Saturday, October 31, 2009

Airhead -- Not Really for Kids

Unlike Allie Finkle's Rules for Girls: Moving Day, Airhead, by Meg Cabot, is just what she does best. It's light -- fluffy, even -- and eminently enjoyable. BUT, and this is a big BUT, it's just not appropriate for the 7th-9th grade target audience.

Airhead is vintage Cabot. Emerson Watts is a 17 year old on a scholarship in an elite New York high school. She dresses in jeans and t-shirts, is a self-described brainiac, and loves playing computer games with her best friend Christopher. She is also secretly in love with Christopher, but can't get up the nerve to do anything about it. Her parents are professors, her mother a professor of women's studies so Em and her sister have been raised to reject sexist roles. Little sister Frida, though, secretly aspires to be a cheerleader.

While chaperoning her sister at the grand opening of the new Stark Megastore in their SoHo neighborhood, Em is involved in an accident touched off by some protesters and is struck by a falling plasma TV. As the paramedics are working on her, teen supermodel Nikki Howard, also at the grand opening to promote the store, collapses with a fatal brain aneurysm.

Now, I know this next bit is going to seem like a huge stretch of the imagination, but Em's brain is removed from her irreparably damaged body and transplanted into the brain-dead supermodel's body. When I first realized that this was the premise, I thought "you have GOT to be kidding." But actually, the book is so fluffy, so not taking itself seriously, that I bought into it. Cabot does a nice job of explaining that this sort of thing has been going on for years, and that any number of celebrities and members of royal families who are presumed dead, are actually walking around in other people's bodies to avoid detection by law enforcement or ex-spouses or the paparazzi. It's the most campy conspiracy theory you've ever heard and it made me laugh.

Much of the book is concerned with Em coming to grips with her new identity. Part of the agreement her parents had to sign said that Em, who is now legally Nikki Howard, must honor all of Nikki's contracts and obligations, so Em is catapulted into a life of photo shoots and late night parties. If Em spills the beans about her true identity, her parents will immediately owe the hospital $2million for the transplant and they could all face jail time for breaching the confidentiality clause. Nikki is an emancipated minor, so Em now has freedoms, and money, she never before enjoyed. Em's life has been well-grounded up 'til now, but Nikki's has been rather less supervised. Although Nikki doesn't drink (she has acid reflux) or do drugs, she certainly has enjoyed a dating life that the much more sheltered Em now has to deal with. There's also a subplot, which foreshadows the next two books, about Stark Megastores and the possibility that they're spying on Nikki, though for what purpose is still a mystery that Em has to work out.

This is the part that gets sticky for me. When I read a book like this, I read it on two levels -- first I evaluate it for myself and then I put it through my Mom-Filter to see how I'd feel if my daughter were reading it. Airhead passes my standards easily, but fails to make it through my Mom-Filter. There are a lot of OMGs in the book...lots and lots, in fact. And Nikki's friend Lulu tells her "way to be a bitch," which I didn't much like, particularly since these girls are supposed to be the height of cool. But what really got me was the implication that while Em is an innocent, never even kissed before she became Nikki, Nikki's physical history with boys has been more involved. Her boyfriend casually assumes she'll sleep over; there's a reference to her "hooking up" with someone in Paris; and Lulu alludes to Nikki's difficulty in "stopping" whenever a boy, any boy, kisses her. Em is confused by the reactions Nikki's body has to kissing, implying still further that perhaps Nikki is far more experienced.

Frankly, I don't know how anyone thought this would be okay for 12, 13 or even 14 year olds. I might let my 15 year old read it with reservations and a lot of discussion, but no younger. The redeeming feature here is Em's innocence; whatever Nikki may have done, Em has a good head on her shoulders and has had solid parents behind her, guiding her behavior (though Em does recount her Mom's message about sex "don't have [it], but if you do, use a condom." )

Obviously the book is mostly fantasy (like Em, in her new body, discovering that Nikki's acid reflux makes chips and cookies taste bad and vegetables and tofu taste good) and good for a laugh, but it bothered me that the presumption here is that girls age 12 and up have no innocence left to shelter, so why not let this scenario with Em and the possibly very-experienced Nikki play out with all its comic consequences? I have absolutely no problem with this as an adult, or even an upper secondary book, but younger than that should be advised that the themes in this novel are far above what most middle school/jr. high kids can handle.

This is part of a series of three books. Being Nikki was released this past spring and the third installment, Runaway, is coming out in 2010.

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