All's Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson, 248 pp, RL 4

My youngest is about to turn thirteen and I am embarrassed to admit that I am worried that he has not found his "thing." By this age, his sister was interested in singing, musical theater and writing. His brother was pursuing engineering feats that included a tall ship made of popsicle sticks and version of Angkor Wat in the backyard hewn from mud, rocks and a bit of cement. Reading Victoria Jamieson's newest book, All's Faire in Middle School, reminds me how wonderful - and challenging - it can be to have a "thing." In the superlative, Newbery Honor winning Roller Girl, Astrid discovers her thing - roller derby. She also discovers that it's hard to juggle your new passion and your old friends, especially when they seem to be opposites. In All's Faire in Middle School, Imogene, or Impy as she is most often called, has had her "thing" for as long as she can remember. 

Impy's family has worked at the Florida Renaissance for as long as she can remember. For eight weekends every summer, her mother runs a shoppe where she sells her crafts and her father is one of the principal actors, often playing the bad guy. During the day, he works as a pool salesman and mom homeschools eleven-year-old Impy and her six-year-old brother, Felix. Impy loves her "faire-mily," the traditions of the faire and is especially excited because this year, she has been given the role of squire, which includes acting the part of a Renaissance child on the main street of the faire, adding to the atmosphere. Impy will also be starting middle school, public middle school.

Impy quickly finds herself on the right side of Mika and her group friends and on the wrong side of Dr. Macgregor, her no-nonsense science teacher. Impy also finds herself in that curious limbo land of middle school friendships with Anita. Picked on at school for being serious and smart - and also for something she did in fourth grade - she is in three classes with Impy. She also happens to be a Renn Faire fan who attends both days each weekend of the faire with her father. And she takes fencing lessons. She tells Impy not to talk to her at school because it will be better for both of them, leaving Impy confused. As Impy's friendship with Mika and her group progresses, she also feels confused by things that Mika says and does, like being friendly with a girl on the bus then telling Impy she can't stand her once she's gone.

Like Roller Girl, All's Faire in Middle School is a rich, dense book filled with an amazing cast of characters and detailed illustrations, with full page panels that resemble illuminated manuscripts and Impy's occasional escapes into her imagination that take her to an enchanted land. While I began reading All's Faire thinking that being homeschooled would be a major plot point, I was surprised and pleased to find that, more than her past educational history, the socioeconomic standing of Impy's family was a bigger part of the story. In a heartbreaking scene mid-novel, Impy forgoes the beautiful handmade boots she purchased, in part with her own money, from a vendor at the faire, to wear "Sammies," just like all the other kids. It is these same kids, of course, who are quick to point out that she bought knock offs (they don't have the purple star on the heel) and even quicker to laugh at Impy when she draws a purple star on the heel. Jamieson achingly, authentically captures those moments of trying to fit in and standing out even more that are often unavoidable in adolescence. When it seems that Impy has alienated her family, friends and frenemies through her own unkind actions and those enacted upon her, she finds kindness and words of wisdom from Violet, the actress playing the princess at the faire. Violet helps Impy see that she is not always the knight fighting the dragon - sometimes she is the dragon. And sometimes she is also the princess. Chapter 12 begins with these words:

Sometimes in the midst of a dark thicket, a knight-in-training may try - just try - being a princess for a spell. Even if this knight-in-training never, ever thought of themselves as a princess-type. Ever. Not ever. . . But just maybe, it might lead the hero toward the path out of darkness.

For Impy, being the princess means being friendly and kind to everyone at school. In fact, she decides to pretend like she is working at the faire and plays the character of the outgoing, friendly, chatty kid. Jamieson ends All's Faire in Middle School in a way that is completely satisfying and organic and will leave you turning back to the first page and reading this brilliant graphic novel all over again!

Source: Review Copy & Purchased Copy

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