Dress Coded: Middle School Fiction That Is All Too Real

Lynn: I picked up Dress Coded (Penguin/Putnam, 2020) because of its timely subject and I stayed because the outstanding writing completely captured me! What a terrific surprise! I read this in a day, not wanting to put it down. Carrie Firestone is a debut author and one I will be eagerly watching.

This IS a timely subject and a very important one – the treatment of girls and the clothes they wear. In Molly’s middle school, the dress code is used to humiliate and harass. It is applied inequitably and it’s used to place blame and body shame on young girls. Molly, an 8th grader, is small and slight and a late developer and she has largely gone unnoticed by Fingertips, the administrator who prowls the halls looking for dress code violations such as shorts shorter than the length of a girl’s fingertips, bare shoulders, or bra straps that show. When one of Molly’s friends is treated horribly, she decides to take a stand and starts Dress Coded—a podcast highlighting case after case of humiliation and shaming and the impact it has on girls. The podcast becomes widely followed and soon even high school girls start asking to tell their story of their experiences as middle schoolers. Molly, who is an average student, and who has felt invisible, discovers the power of her voice and her outrage at the treatment of so many. Throughout the course of the book, Molly’s confidence grows and she learns the steps of an organized protest seeking change and justice.

But this more than simply an “issue” story. There is a lot going on here that captured and held my attention. Molly’s family is really struggling as her 11th-grade brother, Danny, is mean and defiant, addicted to the nicotine in vaping, and selling vaping pods to younger kids. The parents’ focus is on Danny and their inability to deal with him and here again, Molly feels unseen.

This story is also a portrait of the power of friendships. Molly, a deeply empathetic girl, is sustained and supported by her relationships with her widening circle of friends. Firestone’s picture of middle school is spot on as is the dialog, relationships, and struggles of kids that age. Told in Molly’s first-person voice, the story also includes podcasts, school bulletins, phone calls, and letters. Crushes, bullies, racism, and more is also explored. The story is compelling, encouraging, and ultimately triumphant. I was cheering the whole way!

Cindy: Dress Coded is going to be a popular book in middle schools. Having worked in them for over three decades and having raised two daughters who attended them, this story raises important questions and issues for students and policymakers to explore together. One of my favorite lines of the book comes during the school board meeting when a junior boy approaches the mic and says that, “he is distracted by girls all day every day (everyone laughs), but it has nothing to do with the thickness of their shoulder straps or whether their shorts are longer than their fingertips. ‘That, my friends, is preposterous.'” Anyone who knows adolescents or remembers being one knows that body image is such an important issue along with so many other awkward parts of this age, for both sexes, but girls face additional scrutiny due to messages in our media, and in our policies. It’s way past time to start doing something about it. Viva la revolution!

The formatting of the book, as Lynn notes, makes this an appealing read for reluctant or busy teen readers. The subject is sure to grab their attention, and the brief chapters and ample white space will keep them turning the pages.

 

 

Heroes We Need: Here in the Real World by Sara Pennypacker

Cindy: Children who embrace time alone, time to think, and time for their own pursuits are going to quietly embrace Sara Pennypacker’s new middle-grade novel, Here in the Real World (Harper/Balzer + Bray, 2020). Ware’s summer plans with his grandmother get sidetracked when she falls and breaks a hip landing her in rehab. His parents immediately sign him up for another summer of “Meaningful Social Interaction” with a side of humiliation that is the local Rec camp. He offers to pay them twice as much as the camp fees to let him stay home alone, he’s eleven, after all. They refuse. He skips out of Rec on the first day during a morning run and takes refuge at a crumbling church nearby. There he meets Jolene, who is using the church’s lot to grow a garden in coffee cans. Battle lines are initially drawn as the two stake their claims and go about their projects. Ware, fascinated by the Middle Ages, is turning the church into a medieval castle. Soon their refuge is threatened by a bird welfare organization and the potential sale of the church. Jolene and Ware must join forces and fight for the land that is so important to them.

Both kids have personal issues. Ware is different and he has overheard his mother wish that they just had a normal kid. Jolene’s situation slowly comes to light, although experienced readers will understand her issues of abandonment and abuse sooner rather than later. Both kids inspire the reader to champion their cause and to enjoy watching the transformations that ensue. Being quiet and being different is okay.

Lynn: One of the things I admire most about Sara Pennypacker’s writing is the way she gets how kids think and then puts readers right there in that experience too. That aspect is a highlight of Here in the Real World. Introverted Ware with his rich inner life, is vividly and authentically portrayed here. We feel Ware’s acute anxiety over the prospect of daily immersion in the summer rec program and we also feel his misery at how he thinks he disappoints his mother by being who he is. Watching Ware grow throughout the story and become confident in himself is the real joy of the book. I was a kid like Ware. I remember still my deep unhappiness at the prospect of the noisy horror of things like birthday parties and I still shudder at the thought of games like Musical Chairs!

One of the great gifts of reading is the ability to see through someone else’s eyes and this thoughtful book provides children unlike Ware to experience his feelings and those like him to be reassured. And seriously – what kid could resist the idea of that medieval castle complete with moat? Don’t miss this quiet and wonderfully crafted book.