The Agony of Alice: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Agony of Alice by Phyllis Reynolds NaylorIn 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

Starting With Alice: Another Young Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Starting With Alice (2004) by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (find it on Bookshop)

Starting with Alice by Phyllis Reynolds NaylorYou could say that Alice McKinley (not to be confused with Alice MacLeod) has a bit of a cult following at my current place of employ. So maybe it was just a matter of time before I too got sucked in.

A word on the series before I start the review: Phyllis Reynolds Naylor began the Alice series with The Agonies of Alice in 1985. In that book Alice is 11 and starting sixth grade. She has just moved and started at a new school. Since then, Naylor has been writing a new Alice book approximately every year which certain librarians have pointed out has strong addictive qualities. Until about 2002, the books ran linearly. Then Naylor did something different, she wrote three prequel novels talking about Alice as a third, fourth, and fifth grader weaving in stories that Alice had previously reflected on in other books in the series. Starting With Alice (2004) is the first of these prequels (followed by Alice in Blunderland and Lovingly Alice). I like to read linearly whenever possible so, after reading The Agony of Alice and finding out about these prequels I decided to read the series straight through in terms of Alice’s age instead of publication date (the series is supposed to end when Alice turns 18 and is already well-grounded in the Young Adult genre at this point).

Now that that’s settled, let’s talk about the actual book.

Alice, her father, and her older brother have just moved into a new house. Alice’s first friend on the block is Donald Sheavers, her weird neighbor. Along the way, Alice makes other, less weird, friends. And also attracts some unwanted attention from one of the street patrol girls. It’s not always easy being Alice. I can’t say much more about the story without revealing everything. This book is more about Alice’s day-to-day life as she tries to fit in and make friends than about any huge event.

Alice narrates in the first person. As a result, the novel is conversational and pretty mellow. Alice is a cool girl, even though she doesn’t think so, and her narration is endearing. Naylor strikes the perfect balance here. Alice’s voice is consistent with her debut novel, but she does sound younger–without being annonyingly young.

Alice also demonstrates that, although she’s only eight, it’s never to early to develop a strong character. In the novel Alice makes new friends and stands up to bullies among her other wonderfully positive characteristics. I don’t know that children read books about children in search of role models, but if they do Starting With Alice definitely offers up a good one.

In terms of when to read this book, I think it would work either way. I enjoyed reading it already knowing about Donald Sheavers and an unfortunate poem written to the milkman. But readers could definitely read this without knowing anything about Alice and enjoy it just as much.