Tuesday, August 30, 2011

YA Review - Close to Famous by Joan Bauer

Every avid reader has a stable of sure-thing authors. You know what I mean -- the writers who consistently deliver the right balance of absorbing plot, engaging characters and intriguing themes. For me Joan Bauer is right at the top of that sure-thing list, and has been ever since I first cracked Rules of the Road. That novel, about Jenna, a teenage shoe salesperson who ends up driving her cantankerous elderly boss across country, has pretty much everything you'd look for in a great story, including seemingly insurmountable conflict and crackling good dialogue.

Bauer's latest novel doesn't disappoint, and it has cupcakes. What's not to love? In Close to Famous, Foster McGee has a plate full of troubles, starting with her mama's nasty Elvis-impersonator ex-boyfriend. When Foster and her mom run away from Huck, there's nowhere for them to go, and soon they wash up in the tiny town of Culpepper. Before long Foster's met all the local characters, including Macon, an amateur filmmaker, and the faded Hollywood star Miss Charleena. But all Foster wants is to hit it big with her own show on Food Network -- and even though her muffins are the kind people would line up for, how's she ever going to be discovered in this backwater burg?

Joan Bauer creates characters that are believable, the kind of strong, determined girls who may have the deck stacked against them but don't ever give up on the ones they love. In Foster's case, she's also dealing with learning disabilities and missing her daddy, whose Army helicopter was shot down. (She's multiracial too, but Bauer doesn't use this as a conflict, just as a fact of Foster's life. It's always great to find solid novels featuring people of color that don't turn exclusively around the race of their protagonist.) Foster knows that her baking is the best hope for a future, but also that it's a very long shot. And yet she presses on, one chocolate chip muffin at a time, determined she'll have a better life. Foster is the kind of girl that readers can root for, one who faces trouble at every turn but doesn't quit trying.

But this is far from a one-note novel. In Culpepper, Bauer has created a location that mirrors Foster's own life, the kind of place that everyone counts out but that has plenty to offer. True, the plot turns around Foster, but the secondary characters are pretty unforgettable too. Slowly Foster wins over even the most oppositional individuals with her fantastic cooking, the scent of which fairly wafts off the pages -- butterscotch muffins, pineapple upside-down cupcakes, brown sugar brownies. Don't read this one on an empty stomach or you will absolutely be sorry.

The recent furor raised by an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal paints all YA fiction as impossibly dark and grim. Foster's story is anything but. Personally I don't know how the author could overlook authors like Joan Bauer (and Ally Carter, and Sarah Dessen, and Maureen Johnson, and and and). In Close to Famous, Bauer gives us a protagonist who struggles against insurmountable odds but manages to keep her sense of humor and determination intact. This is one a diverse audience can relate to, the kinds of issues that Foster grapples with being those that many kids might see in themselves. It's a quick read and some may find it wraps up a little too neatly. Still, there's a lot to like in this solidly written novel, and it's sure to bring Bauer even more devoted followers.

Close to Famous by Joan Bauer, published by Viking
Ages 11-14
Source: Library
Sample quote: "I walk to the bathroom, hearing the slap slap of my flowered flip-flops on the floor. Sonny Kroll, my favorite Food Network cook, who can make a meal out of anything that's lying around, always says 'Go with what you've got.' Well, I have Mama and she has me. I hope Huck has four flat tires and is left in a ditch."

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