July 19, 2016

Turning Pages Reads: CLOSE TO FAMOUS, by JOAN BAUER

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

When we talk about comfort reads, we have to mention the works of Joan Bauer. A little offbeat, a little unique, her books are always engaging and wise. Though quite a few are written for teens, many Bauer books skew to the older edge of MG like mine do, often featuring twelve or thirteen-year-olds with convoluted family issues that require the maturity and heart of an older person. Bauer's books also often include characters who have jobs - and whose families really need the money that they put toward the common pot. CLOSE TO FAMOUS was a recipient of the Schneider Family Book Award for Middle School Book (2012), was a Buckeye Children's Book Award Nominee for 6-8 (2012), and The Judy Lopez Memorial Award for Children's Literature Honor recipient (2012). I couldn't resist it, what with the cupcakes on the front cover...

Synopsis: Foster McFee has crazy-curly hair and green eyes, and a penchant for baking that is out of this world. She was taught by Marietta Morningstar to master muffins, but it was Sonny Kroll from the Food Network who gave her wings. Foster has an imaginary cooking show going on in her head as she makes her fabulous muffins and cupcakes. It's just Foster and her mother, Rayka, on their own now, since Foster's dad died in Iraq. At least, Foster hopes it stays just she and her Mom on their own. The guy her mother used to sing backup for, an Elvis impersonator at their old house in Memphis, turned out to be bad, bad news, and they had to leave Memphis fast. The McFees are in Culpepper, West Virginia right now - a run down, mostly boarded-up old town that's the home of an aging starlet, an aspiring documentary filmmaker, a mechanical tarantula, and a big, gray prison which was supposed to be the financial making of this former coal town, but has broken all of its promises to the people. A town with no preacher and a boarded-up church? A town with scary prisoners in uniform, working on the side of the road, and guards with aviator sunglasses and surly attitudes? That doesn't sound like a place anyone wants to move to, just away from. But, leave it to Foster to come reluctantly into a place and leave everyone a little sunnier, a little brighter -- and a little hungry for cupcakes. Though Foster, with her example of a strong survivor mother and a loving father, is a ray of straight talking sunshine and encouragement, what Culpepper gives to her is just as important -- new memories to cover up the old, and the strength to keep trying.

Observations: Though the cover doesn't really reflect this, Foster is biracial. Her father's people are Irish, but her mother's people are from Africa, Russia, Sweden, Germany, and the Dominican Republic. There is vague reference to her mother's skintone, mentioned when she meets another woman, Perseverance, who is darker. We talk a lot in reviewing books about how it matters to point out the race or ethnicity of a character, and how sometimes it's difficult to pin it down, but here Bauer has made it very easy: biracial main character. Unlike Bauer's books for older readers, we don't spend a lot of time on the complicated issues in Foster's life, mainly that she and her mother have escaped from a situation of abuse. Foster feels that all of her problems would go away if she could just read right - but the reading issues are an outgrowth of the subsequent anxiety about the issue, as well as anxieties and griefs about a whole host of other things. Foster's mother treats her like she's a ... child. Which she is, and so the reader doesn't get as much detail about how they got where they are, and what they're going to do about it -- but that's fine. This book really is very much a middle grade novel, best for young middle grade readers, and the immediate issues of bullying and embarrassment are much more important.

Foster is described as having a "memorable" personality. Most of the people in this novel - Angry Wayne, camera-less filmmaker Macon Dillard, scuttling Mr. Fish and his nemesis, a woman named Perseverance, and of course, the actress, Miss Charleena - all these could also be called memorable personalities. Even the prison, with its unearthly glow at night and gray, hulking size by day, is its own character. A Joan Bauer book is full of personalities - some of them quirkier than others, all of them with some truth to impart.

Conclusion: Reading a Joan Bauer book is like coming into a room filled with people you already know. Though each story is different, there's a vivid ...Bauer-ness to each of them, which brings a comfort all its own. While my all-time favorite Bauer book remains HOPE WAS HERE, Foster is a sturdy, doughty young lady who reminded me a bit of much younger Lainey in A LA CARTE and made me both want cupcakes and to go out and take on the world.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of my public library, on Overdrive. You can find CLOSE TO FAMOUS by Joan Bauer at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!


Sarah Stevenson said...

Memorable characters--makes me think of Carl Hiaasen. He's great at those. :) Hooray for another book about a biracial kid! Though I did have a few A La Carte flashbacks while reading your review. :D

tanita✿davis said...

@Sarah: I did, too -- which is why I picked it up -- but it is for a much younger audience, and the main character doesn't quite take responsibility for her life in the same way, being younger.