11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass 267 pp RL 4
It's not possible to write a review of Wendy Mass' bouyant new book 11 Birthdays without comparing it to the 1993 movie Groundhog Day. Like Bill Murray, Amanda Ellerby is forced to repeat the day of her eleventh birthday, Friday, June 5th, over and over again until she gets it right. That is where the similarities end, however. Mass takes the idea of having to repeat the same day over and over, puts it in the hands of her characters and lets them run with it.
Each named for a great-great grandparent, Amanda Ellerby and Leo Fitzgerald are born on the same in the same birthing center. Unbeknownst to them, their great-great-grandfathers carried on a legendary feud that turned town upside down until they ended it, instantly and mysteriously, and were friends for the rest of their lives. Also unbeknownst to Leo and Amanda is the presence at their births of Angelina D'Angelo, the woman who, with a little bit of magic, brought about the end of the Fitzgerald and Ellerby feud. However, these details aren't revealed until almost the end of the book. And, while they are interesting, the bulk of the plot, which has Amanda, the narrator, reliving the same day over and over again - eleven times in all - until she gets it right, is so much more compelling and entertaining that I didn't even need the magic to make sense of the glitch in time.
Amanda and Leo have always celebrated their birthdays with a joint party. At the start of their tenth birthday parts, Amanda overhears Leo telling a group of boys that he doesn't like having his party with Amanda. Amanda is so hurt by this that she runs out of the party and doesn't speak to Leo again for a year. Aside from losing her best friend, Amanda's grudge also means that there will now be two different parties competing for guests on the same night. Without Leo, Amanda has clung to Stephanie, who sided with Amanda after the fight. Stephanie is a gymnast who wants to make the team and be friends with the popular girls. Amanda is willing to practice her back handspring and try out for the team, but she knows that she's not as good as the other girls and, being a drummer, would rather be trying out for the marching band. Repeating her birthday over and over gives Amanda the chance to work through these tough situations. And, after she and Leo figure out that they are both repeating their birthday, they team up, first to take advantage of the fact that they can do whatever they want and when they wake up in the morning it will all have been erased, and eventually to get to the bottom of the situation and whatever it is that is keeping them stuck.
In case you have never read a Wendy Mass book before, she is a sneaky philosopher. She is a teacher of important life lessons - behind your back. I am sure that as an adult reader I see this more readily in her works than an eleven year old would. Even so, I have no doubt that Amanda's insecurities and refusal to forgive her friend Leo for his hurtful words will resonate with young readers. Just as she did with Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life, Mass comes up with a creatively clever device that serves as a teaching tool for the main characters of her books. For Jeremy, a box with four different locks that is inscribed with the words, "THE MEANING OF LIFE: FOR JEREMY FINK TO OPEN ON HIS 13th BIRTHDAY," sends him and his best friend Lizzy on a scavenger hunt around New York City that reveals more answers to the question, "What is the meaning of life?" than there are locks on the box. For Amanda, the opportunity, which to her seems like a curse, to repeat a day over and over, fixing her mistakes as well as doing some good deeds - at first to try to keep the day from repeating, but eventually just because it feels good - ultimately leads her to discover truths about herself and ways to find a balance between her interests and her desire to be a good friend.
Before I started reviewing books for my blog I mostly read works from the fantasy genre for kids. Rarely would I read books set in reality because it didn't seem as interesting and the characters always seemed a little too quirky or a little to precocious for the page. However, I am glad that I am starting to find out what I have been missing. Wendy Mass has done a phenomenal job filling a gap in the shelves at the bookstore and the library by writing books with realistic, but intriguing characters who face the traditional hurdles of growing up in unique and thought-provoking ways. Along with Ingrid Law author of Savvy, from whom more great books are sure to come, and Polly Horvath, author of My One Hundred Adventures, among others, Wendy Mass is in my top three of favorite writers of realistic (or maybe, at this point "magical realism" is a better term) fiction for young adults.