Published May 01, 2011
YA novel gets in with the wrong crowdBarbara Lloyd McMichael, The Bookmonger
Disney in the 21st century: The company that once brought us Mickey Mouse, Annette Funicello, and "101 Dalmatians" now deals with subject matter such as teen sex, raves, infidelity, divorce, and the college admissions game. Theyre doing it by publishing books such as "Girl Wonder," the debut young adult novel by Gig Harbor author Alexa Martin.After I got over my initial stupefaction at this books Disney connection (publisher Hyperion is a Disney imprint), I found myself completely drawn into this story about Charlotte, a high school honors student who has to move across the country to Seattle to finish out her senior year in a school very unlike the one she had left.Charlottes dad is an author who at long last has a best-seller on his hands. While Charlotte privately regards the book as literary porn for middle-aged white guys, it is taking her dad away from the family a lot as he promotes it around the country. Charlottes mom has just taken a teaching job at Seattle University, and her brilliant 12-year-old brother, James Henry, has been accepted into an exclusive prep school.But because of a math-related learning disability, Charlotte is excluded not only from that school, but also from the gifted program at the local high school. This cant be good for Charlottes college aspirations a subject her dad is constantly harping on. Adding insult to injury, the students in the regular program have no use for an egghead like her.Charlotte feels as if shes been banished to the ninth circle of hell until she is befriended by pink-haired Amanda, a fearless kid who is calculating, rich, and completely compelling. Everyone who matters in school seems to orbit around her, including handsome Neal, captain of the debate team and another member of the schools elite.Suddenly Charlotte finds herself signing up for the debate team and regularly hanging out with Amanda, Neal, and other kids who are smart, ambitious, nervy and maybe too willing to push their limits.Told in first person, the narrative is funny, frank, and painful. Charlotte is heading for a personal train wreck, and she knows it but her other options seem to be boredom, alienation, or harassment. Her parents are too immersed in their careers to pay much attention to her (or to each other marital difficulties are looming). And her little brother is having the time of his life in his new school with his new friends.So Charlotte plugs on, distracting herself from the pressure of applying for college and the manifold miseries of life in this new place by experimenting instead with sex, drugs and other risky behaviors.Martin captures spot-on the turmoil of adolescence. Her nuanced portrayal of the impossible task of fitting in is completely relatable. Following Charlotte on her journey through her senior year can be a distressing reading experience at times, but Girl Wonder ultimately bears a hopeful message about the capacity for growth in selfawareness.The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .