Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Allie Finkle's Rules for Girls

I wanted to like Moving Day, I really did. I am a big fan of Meg Cabot's and when I discovered this series written for the 8-10 year old crowd, I thought it couldn't help but be a home run. It has all the elements for success -- a heroine who's 9, a familiar crisis (moving), a pair of lovable brothers for the longsuffering heroine to tolerate-- but for me, it just didn't click.

Maybe I set the bar too high. After all, Cabot's Princess Diaries are among my favorite books of all time. I laughed out loud reading books 1-3 (though the rest of the franchise is negligible). But Allie Finkle is no Mia Thermopolis. She's just not that likable.

Here's the premise: Allie is horrified to find her family is moving across town. How will she survive without her best friend, Mary Kay? What about her rock collection? How will she manage in a new school? But the thing is, Allie's best friend is irritating. And not in a funny, trademark Meg Cabot way; she's just annoying. It's hard to see why Allie hangs out with her. At the same time, Allie is occasionally mean to Mary Kay in a way that seems rather heartless. So while you can certainly see why Allie does mean things to Mary Kay, you can't really endorse her behavior or feel good about it. Nor does Allie (who narrates the book) really feel much remorse. She knows what she did was wrong, but it doesn't weigh on her. It wasn't deeply troubling for me, but it did make Allie less likable.

Frankly, most of the kids in her school are rather repellent and the reader will have no trouble getting the rather heavy-handed message that Allie will be much better off in her new neighborhood with her new school. Especially after she meets her new neighbor, a girl her age who is imaginative, enthusiastic, open and willing to share -- just about everything Mary Kay isn't. Obviously it takes Allie a little longer to realize this fact, and her situation is complicated when she steals the turtle from the local Chinese restaurant. This part really irked me, partly because it was so pointless (she's worried he'll be made into soup) and partly because Allie doesn't suffer much in the way of consequences (she is promised a kitten after the move, but this is taken away; later she gets a kitten anyway). Her family is banned from eating in that restaurant, but who cares? They're moving anyway.

Other, smaller things rankled as well -- the fact that her parents keep a swear jar, which they occasionally have to contribute to and the casual cruelty of Allie's classmates spring to mind. Allie does have one positive change of heart about boy in her class that was nicely done, but the rest of the kids are so deeply unlikable that it's hard to see why she wouldn't want to move. There's also a subplot in which Allie stands up to some girls in her class and rescues a cat they're mistreating. Her rescue backfires and the cat escapes outside. Allie owns up to her mistake, and rats out the other girls for their cat abuse, which was handled well, but further underscores the question: why does she want to stay with these awful "friends?"

I wanted to like Allie, but didn't. Because I like Cabot, I will give this series another shot. Maybe the second book, set in the new neighborhood and shorn of its feral 3rd graders, will capture that light style she normally does so well.

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