With her first book for young readers, My Last Best Friend, Julie Bowe strikes a perfect note in more ways than one. I am especially excited because this is a book that is a perfect bridge for a reader who is ready to move beyond books like Judy Blume's Soupy Saturdays with the Pain and the Great One, The Cobble Street Cousins Series by Cynthia Rylant or Megan McDonald's excellent Stink books, but not quite ready for the gem that is Jeanne Birdsall's The Penderwicks or Wendy Mass's charming 11 Birthdays or Polly Horvath's superb My 100 Adventures. In tone and content as well as character development, Bowe manages to write a story that is both big and important and (comparatively) short and sweet at the same time.
Narrator Ida May is quiet and observant, cautious about being herself, but she is also full of creativity, imagination and just enough courage to inch her way towards a new friend. When the story begins, the first day of fourth grade is right around the corner and Ida May is describing all of the ways in which fourth grade is very different. Ida May's list of line-in-the sand, no going back changes that happen in fourth grade include,"there is no more printing... In fourth grade you're a baby if you still want to play with Barbies. Or if the Tooth Fairy still comes to your house." My favorite, however, is Ida's commentary on her changing body, "In fourth grade you start to smell funny. So you get your first stick of teen deodorant, even though you won't actually be a teen for at least three years. Your mom leaves it on your bed in a little brown paper bag. You rub some on. After five tries you finally hit your armpit. When your mom smells you, she smiles and starts talking about stuff like 'body image' and 'healthy attitude' and 'girl power.' " This is so spot on. While I don't remember this moment from my own childhood, I distinctly remember my son coming home from the first day of fourth grade and informing me that his teacher told the whole class that they need to buy deodorant because fourth grade is when you start to smell.
Part of Ida May's personality, and predicament, is shaped by the loss of her last best friend. Ida and Elizabeth were two peas in a pod and Bowe does such a marvelous job having Ida May share all of the wonderful things about Elizabeth, things that ring so true, that it is easy to understand why she has closed herself off from her peers. No one can ever match Elizabeth Evans and, with a bossy bully like Jenna Drews around to "entice" any new girls to join her group, it seems like Ida May won't even have a fighting chance to make a new friend in fourth grade. However, Ida May has learned to cope with being alone. She is a budding artist who carries her sketch book around with her and she has a sock monkey, George, to talk to when she is at home. Although it's not ideal, I found myself wishing that Ida's unknowing mom would let her stay in her room instead of repeatedly pushing her into activities with Jenna and her crowd. But, as a parent I definitely understand the maternal worry that can drive you to nudge a child into an uncomfortable situation. And, of course, Jenna makes for great tension and drama in the story.
Adding to this tension is the new girl, Stacey Merriweather. She seems nice enough, with her "big-crayon smile" but, as Ida May notes, "people with big-crayon smiles don't stick around very long. They move away just when you've gotten used to the way their hand feels sticky when you hold it, or the way they hiccup when they talk fast, or the way they whistle by sucking in instead of blowing out, or the way they can touch their nose with the tip of their tongue." And, people with big-crayon smiles who are genuinely friendly to and interested in people like Ida may are exactly the kind of people Jenna Drews sticks to like a Choco-chunk on your shoe. Ida and Stacey bump into each other and are thrown together more than once, Stacey always talkative and interested in Ida, but Ida's reticence and Jenna's drive always split them up. But, when a fun classroom game reveals that Stacey is not her real name, Ida May comes up with a clever, anonymous way to satisfy her curiosity without having to be a friend.
I love this particular aspect of My Last Best Friend and I think that it highlights an ingenious creativity on Bowe's part. Ida May begins exchanging secret notes with Stacey using the pseudonym Cordelia. As I kid, I would have been so excited to find a secret note on my desk or mailbox. Who am I kidding? As an adult I would be thrilled with this! The notes allow Ida May to come out of her shell and trust a little and they allow Stacey to let down her protective barrier - telling lies. As with the bullying done by the character of Jenna, Bowe handles Stacey's lying very well, amplifying and dramatizing as well as clarifying the instances that occur in the story. I especially enjoyed the way that the girls were able to express their creativity - Ida May's artistic abilities and Stacey's love of writing - in the notes that they exchange. When Stacey shares a story idea and asks Ida/Cordelia to add on to it she tells Stacey that she is better at drawing than writing and illustrates her story for her.
The book includes a sleep-over party at Jenna's that rings very true, for girls and moms, an art contest and a climax that includes Stacey coming clean about the lies she has been telling. While I was definitely worried that Ida May's heart might get broken again, Bowe resolves the story wonderfully, giving Ida May the challenge, now that she has revealed herself to Stacey and they have agreed to be friends, of being best friends with someone who is not exactly like her in the ways that her last best friend was.
The five books (and reviews) in the series are as follows:
Book One: My Last Best Friend
Book Two: My New Best Friend
Book Three: My Best Frenemy
Book Four: My Forever Friends
Book Five: My Extra Best Friend