I’ve been a Joan Bauer fan for a long time. I think her 2001 Newbery honor winning Hope Was Here was probably my first introduction to her her strong-but-innocent female protagonists, a character type she has perfected through all of her intervening novels. Foster McKee, protagonist in Bauer‘s latest novel, Close to Famous, might be my favorite, though. Foster has several things going for her that endear her to me: she loves to bake and finds her solace in whipping up the perfect batch of muffins or cupcakes; she loves her mother and misses her father, a service man killed in the Iraqi war; and her life is far from perfect, but she remains hopeful and innocent, despite the hardships. The story opens with Foster and her mother running away from an abusive boyfriend of her mother’s, an Elvis impersonator who insists that Foster call him Elvis. (See what I mean about a “far from perfect” life?) Foster and her mom end up in a little town called Culpepper in West Virginia where they meet a host of warm and quirky characters, from the tow truck-driving couple who get them out of a scrape and give them a place to live to the wife of a deceased minister who’s determined that their church building will not be sold. (Her name is Perseverance, by the way.) It also happens to be summer when they land in Culpepper, which is fortunate for Foster because she hates school. She has never been successful in school, even to the point of being labeled by teachers and bullied by classmates. The truth is, Foster cannot read. She has compensated in her real life by becoming really good at something she loves. However, all the cupcakes in the world aren’t enough to convince the academic world that she can be successful. The mix of characters and turn of events in Culpepper, however, mean a big change is coming for Foster.
This story made me cry, which is not terribly unusually actually, but Bauer captures so well what I imagine the longings and feelings of a child who really struggles to do something but simply cannot do it must be. Foster truly tries to read, but something keeps her brain from decoding the words. Her mama helps her every way she can, and Foster tries hard “not to agree with anybody who says [she’s] a loser,” but it’s a battle. Her refuge is her kitchen, and she depends on Food Network star Sonny Kroll to teach her what she can’t read from a cookbook. When things begin to change for Foster thanks to an almost-washed up movie star who lives in Culpepper, it’s hard not to cheer aloud. Bauer deftly doles out Foster’s successes in little bits, just like they come in real life, so that when Foster does finally cross the line into literacy, it’s simply wonderful. Of course there are numerous other subplots, but all of them have to do with not giving up and believing in your own worth. It’s not too heavy-handed, more subtle and quirky, really. Bauer does a wonderful job of helping her readers see what life might be like for a child who does not think or learn in a traditional way. I give this (and all of Bauer‘s novels) a Highly, Highly Recommended and will gladly hand them over to my girls in a few years. (Viking, 2011)
Close to Famous is one of the middle school winners of the ALA’s 2012 Schneider Family Book Awards, so I am linking this book up for this month’s Award Winning Books Challenge at Gathering Books.