My Forever Friends, written by Julie Bowe, 215 pp, RL 4

My Forever Friends is now in paperback!

With My Forever Friends, the fourth book in her Forver Friends series, Julie Bowe brings (almost) to a close the eventful fourth grade year of Ida May. When we first met Ida May at the start of the school year in My Last Best Friend, she was mourning the loss of her best friend, Elizabeth, who moved away. Ida resolves not to make any friends at all in fourth grade. The arrival of new girl Stacey Merriweather and the attempts of the two queen bees in the class to claim her makes things tense but also begins to open Ida's eyes to the ways in which we are all different and how we can learn to get along. This is theme is explored in book two, My New Best Friend when Ida realizes that having a best friend doesn't have to mean having only one friend. Ida usually tries to avoid the bossy Jenna Drews and her beauty queen best friend Brooke Morgan, but Stacey doesn't seem to mind their overbearing qualities and even enjoys following along with their ideas. On top of that, Ida has to contend with Stacey's penchant for telling lies as she tries to do the right thing. In book three, My Best Frenemy, Jenna and Brooke squabble over Winter Break and Stacey gets closer to Brooke, throwing Ida and Jenna together. This leads Ida to realize that "sometimes plans change. Sometimes friendships do too. Even mine and Stacey's has been changing lately. Not in a bad way, like Brooke and Jenna's. Just in a different way. Maybe even a good way. Because even though I still like Stacey, I know I'm not exactly like her. And that's okay." Ida even finds things about Jenna that she enjoys and appreciates.

At the start of the book we find the girls at a baby shower for Mrs Drews and see the tension of Jenna and Brooke's friction as well as some between Mrs Drews and Brooke's mom, Mrs Morgan. With Jenna's mom going through a difficult pregnancy, Jenna and her little sister Rachel find themselves spending more time at Ida's house so their mom can rest. Rachel is excited by the prospect of a new sibling, unaware of the changes the baby means, but Jenna is noticeably upset by future and current changes that this new life is bringing about, including more money problems for her family. She is even more controlling, bossy and sometimes just outright mean. While the plot resolution explains some of her behavior, Ida also learns that that's just how Jenna is. But she also learns how to navigate their differences as well as remind Jenna that there are other, kinder ways to be. When Jenna and Rachel begin spending afternoons at Ida's, Jenna arrives with an activity chart for the week, detailed right down to the snacks, crafts and games. Only child Ida goes along with the plan, noting, "There are things about Jenna that I'd like to change. Her bossiness. They way she treats Rachel sometimes. Her grudge against Brooke. But there's one thing I wouldn't change. Jenna knows her talents and she isn't afraid to tell you." However, as Jenna's negative behavior and need to feel important becomes overwhelming she pushes more people away from her, including Ida. Ida tells Jenna, "I'd rather not know everything than be a know-it-all," adding, "it's okay to now lots of stuff without always reminding people that you know it. Take Tom Sanders, for instance. Everyone knows he's the smartest kid in our class, but I've never heard him tell anyone. He just . . . shows it. Showing is friendlier than telling." From her past experience with Stacey, Ida knows that being friends is hard, but she has also learned that it is worth the hard work, and Jenna is very hard work sometimes. 

What I love most about all four of Julie Bowe's books are the subtle lessons of acceptance, understanding, tolerance and kindness that she repeats gently and creatively throughout her stories. Ida May is the character who most often exhibits these qualities and, especially in My Forever Friends,  she is the person who reminds the other girls the importance of these characteristics. The mean girl behavior escalates as Jenna and Brooke when have an argument that ends their friendship and splits up the group of seven girls in Mr Crowe's class. The reason for the fight remains a unknown for most of the book, each girl unwilling to break their promise of secrecy surrounding it, and the unkind words between Jenna and Brooke escalate until Brooke forces the girls to pick sides. When Stacey sides with Brooke and follows her orders to ignore any girl not on her side, Ida finds even more reason to end the feud. Ida thinks about her friends often and is good at noticing their many qualities and how they work together. While making popcorn one night and thinking about toppings she thinks, "Jenna knows how to cook things up. Brooke knows how to add the sprinkles." During a class field trip to Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods museum in Pepin, Wisconsin, Ida absorbs the words being read to the children by a museum employee, words written by Wilder herself to school children, "Have courage when things go wrong," leaving her to think about her friends and their difficulties. While having lunch at Lake Pepin before heading back to school, she collects seven stones that remind her of herself and her friends. The premature arrival of Mrs Drews' baby paves the way for reconciliation, with Ida leading the way. My favorite passage in the book comes when Brooke complains about Jenna's bossy behavior Ida points out that,

"she has a lot of good ideas. And, besides, I think we should be extra nice to her right now. Because of her mom. And the baby, and everything." 
     "Um, I don't remember Jenna Drews being extra nice to me when my mom sprained her wrist skiiing last winter," Brooke says. "I had to clean my and Jade's bathroom for a month." She shudders. "Jade sheds like a cat. The shower drain was disgusting."
    "This is different," I say. "Babies are  bigger than shower drains." 
    "How would you know?" Brooke snips. "Have you ever cleaned one? Do you even have hairy sisters?"
    "No," I say. "But that doesn't mean I don't know the difference between what's a big deal and what's not." I look across the puddle. "Right now Jenna is the biggest deal we've got. If she's our friend, the we should treat her like one."

I don't know if ten year old girls really have this kind of clarity and conciseness in their interactions with other girls, but I don't really think that it matters. I read books to learn about other people and places, other ways of being, and I want to read about people who know how to say and do the right thing at the right time because that's something that I am not good at. And, because this is something I'm not good at, I want my children to learn about it from as many resources as possible. If I can't always model a behavior I want them to learn I am grateful to the authors and other creative people out there who create things that show my children and all children the beauty of the world and the hardships and joy of being human. I realize that is a pretty weighty statement and, while Julie Bowe's books are filled with subtle life lessons, they are not weighty books like so many of the recent Newbery Winners tend to be. Bowe has a gift for bringing to light the small things in life that we often overlook in our rush to get to the next place, the next page, and wrapping them in a safe setting for readers to explore.

The five books in the series are as follows:

My New Best Friend by Julie Bowe: Book Cover

Book Two: My New Best Friend

Book Three: My Best Frenemy

Book Four:  My Forever Friends

Book Five:  My Extra Best Friend

Readers who like this series might also like these books with thoughtful characters and challenging situations :
Strawberry Hill by Mary Ann Hoberman
A Book of Coupons and Secret Letters from 0 to 10 both by Susie Morgenstern

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