Thursday, November 19, 2009

Book Review: The Kind of Friends We Used to Be

The Kind of Friends We Used to Be by Frances O'Roark Dowell. Grades 5-7. Atheneum, January 2009. Copy from my local library.

(This is a 2009 Cybils nominee and this review reflects only my personal opinion of the book, not necessarily the opinion of the panel!)

Kate and Marylin had been best friends since preschool until they had a falling out last year in sixth grade. Now Marylin's a middle school cheerleader and Kate is writing songs to play on her guitar. The two of them are in a strange place, not enemies but not all-the-time friends either. As they navigate the strange waters of seventh grade, both girls will start the arduous process of figuring out her place in the world.

I haven't read The Secret Language of Girls, to which this book is the sequel, but I don't think it mattered. I loved it anyway. In fact, it made me want to go back and read the first book, which is a mark of a really good sequel.

This is a quiet sort of book. It's a story about girls beginning to become the people they want to become. Kate decides to become a guitar-playing girl. Marylin starts to look at her cheerleading "friends" and weighs whether popularity is worth putting up with them. Both girls find new interests and new friends. Both girls start to see beyond the surface of people they thought they knew.

The writing is quietly beautiful and I love Ms. Dowell's descriptions. Here's one example from when Kate goes into a neighbor girl's room for the first time:

It had been a long time since Kate had been here, and it looked a lot different from how she'd remembered. Last year around this time Flannery's room had had lots of stuffed animals and pink stuff. Now the walls were still pink, but they were covered with posters of bands who looked very, very mean, like they hoped you would fall down and die that very second. (pp 12-13)

I love that in those few sentences you get not only a sense of the physical space, but a sense of the changes that have taken place over the past year.

Appearance is a major theme in the book. Marylin is into fashion and she wishes Kate would let her make her over. But as the seventh grade progresses, Marylin starts to realize that beauty on the outside doesn't make you a good person. And perceived ugliness on the outside doesn't make you a bad person.

Both Kate and Marylin experience a lot of personal growth over the course of the book. It reminded me of nothing so much as Judy Blume's Just as Long as We're Together, which was a favorite of mine in sixth grade.