In the world of children’s literature (and in recent years also YA), one name is mentioned above all others: Alice. To be specific, Alice McKinley–the intrepid heroine of Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s long running children’s/YA series.
The Agony of Alice is the debut novel of this series, originally published in 1985 (find it on Bookshop) and now out in a variety of reprints with myriad versions of cover art. Personally, I’d be more willing to consider Naylor’s prequel novel Starting With Alice (from 2002) to be the actual beginning of this series, but having read both either seems appropriate as an introduction to Alice’s world.
When this story begins, Alice is preparing to move with her father and older brother. As the family packs up, Alice remembers all of the embarrassing things she did in the years leading up to the move and also wishes that, just maybe, some people like Donald Sheavers and the milk man might disappear or suddenly develop amnesia to save Alice some of her embarrassment.
Of course, life doesn’t work that way, so instead Alice just has to keep moving forward in her new town as she tries to make new friends, find a new mother (Alice’s mother died when she was a young child), and earn a place on the coveted street patrol. Meanwhile, Alice has to decide whether she’s growing up properly or backwards, cope with the worst teacher in the entire grade, and figure out how to buy a pair of jeans. Sixth grade is going to be nothing if not exciting for Alice!
This is the kind of book where not many “major” things happen, it’s more like opening a window into Alice’s life. Happily that works. Alice is likable and entertaining. Naylor does a great job creating an authentic and readable voice in her first person narration. On a more minor note, it’s kind of fun to read the early books in the series that are set in the 1980s just to get little touches like the cassette tapes thrown in to make the setting authentic.
When I started The Agony of Alice I must admit that the book seemed a bit slow (as slow as such a short book can seem). That might have more to do with my usually reading crazy, action-packed fantasy novels. It might also have to do with my resistance to starting this series. Having done my time with sweeping series–the ones that go on for years and require a continued commitment to follow–I was hesitant to start another. Then I found out that the series would be ending when Alice turned eighteen and realized the end was in sight (Alice was already a high school junior in the latest installment). Plus, the book got more interesting the more I read which made me rethink my initial doubts.
Finally, Alice is a great character. Certainly Alice has her stumbles along the way, but she always gets up and dusts herself off. It’s a hard lesson to learn, so it’s nice to see a character in a children’s book who is already getting the hang of it.
Sound good? Find it on Amazon: The Agony of Alice