Sunday, February 12, 2017

What we're reading: A middle school gem

Joan Bauer has written more than a dozen teen novels (between 1992 and now), and they are "feel-good" books (some call them "soft" or "gentle" reads) filled with humor, warmth, and good plots, perfect for middle-schoolers (and the rest of us who enjoy those elements too!). Most of them feature strong, independent, and funny female protagonists, but three of the 12, including her latest book, Soar (2016) have guys as their star players.

I just finished reading and enjoying her book Rules of the Road:

Jenna Boller, 16, is an enthusiastic shoe salesperson at the local branch of Gladstone Shoes. She has a boss who is committed to quality and good customer service, and as her mentor, his training has convinced her that Gladstone's is the place to go (and to work) if you want the best at decent prices.

One day, the "big boss," Mrs. Gladstone, the CEO and one of the two founders of the company, comes into the store for a surprise visit. She is impressed with Jenna's alacrity with the customers, and decides to hire Jenna to drive her from Chicago to Texas (with many stops along the way to pay similar visits to her shoe store branches), where she has a stockholder's meeting.

Jenna has all but decided to say no--why would she want to spend her entire summer chauffeuring an old woman around, when she can work her job, hang with her best friend, and spend more time with her family? But then Jenna's alcoholic father arrives in town and starts embarrassing her by showing up at her job, calling her in the middle of the night, and otherwise behaving badly, so Jenna decides Mrs. Gladstone's offer is an opportune one, if it will get her out of town and away from this situation. The two take off on a road trip in Mrs. Gladstone's cadillac that will have life-changing results for all involved.

I enjoyed this book. I particularly liked it for its portrayal of strong women: Mrs. Gladstone is determined to prevail against those who wish to undermine her company; Jenna's mother has coped with her absent ex's alcoholism and works hard as an ER nurse to support her two girls; and Jenna herself, though in some ways self-doubting, steps up to do the right thing in almost every circumstance in which she is placed. Yes, the story may be a little idealistic in these respects, but it's nice to read something idealistic now and then! I did think that Bauer's treatment of Mrs. Gladstone's son was a bit cardboard-like (one-dimensional and cliched), but aside from that, no complaints.

The book addresses some serious subjects (corporate and personal greed, alcoholism, and Alzheimer's disease) thoroughly, but with wit and humor, and some emotion, too. I would hand this to most middle school girls and many boys, with the expectation that they would enjoy it as well.

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