I remember being 13 or so and talking with a much older cousin of mine. When he asked me what grade I was in I told him seventh and he chuckled to himself. “Man, that was the worst.” Was it? At the time I couldn’t quite figure out what he meant. Sure middle school was awful but sometimes it’s hard to separate yourself from what you perceive as “normal”. Looking back on it now, I can see clearly just how awful that age is for a whole bulk of humanity, but who has the guts to go on out and say it? That would be two-time Newbery Honor winner Jennifer Holm, of course. Yet when you’re dealing with a universal experience you really need to be able to make your book unique in some fashion. Enter artist Elicia Castaldi. “Middle School is Worse Than Meatloaf” is a tale told via “stuff”. Notes, detention slips, photos, CDs, invitations, shopping lists, you name it. A perfect blending of chaotic piles and orderly prose, this book gets to the heart of the best and the worst (more often the worst) of this most awkward and necessary of ages.
She had such plans for the year, Ginny did. Oh, it was going to be great. She had this whole To Do List with things like “Get a dad” and “Try to be friends with Mary Catherine Kelly”. Seventh grade was going to be awesome. Okay, sure Ginny’s bank account seems to stay at the unaccountably small ending balance of $5.00 at all times. And sure the aforementioned Mary Catherine Kelly has decided that Ginny just isn’t worth being friends with anymore. But really, things didn’t start to get really bad until Ginny’s older brother Henry started getting in more and more trouble. Or when she didn’t get her dream role in The Nutcracker and the aforementioned Ms. Kelly did. Or when that brat Brian Bukvic kept bugging her and, and, and…. well, things are never easy in seventh grade. Fortunately, “Middle School is Worse Than Meatloaf” makes it clear that no matter how lousy things are, there’s always a chance that things will eventually get better.
I hereby label 2007 the Year of the Illustrated Novel. Whether you’re dealing with The Arrival, The Invention of Hugo Cabret or even something like Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village, everywhere you look books are breaking down boundaries and crossing lines. In this atmosphere of melded text and image, “Middle School Is Worse Than Meatloaf” fits right in. And by “fits in” what I really mean is “stands out amongst everyone else”. Let me say right now that artist Elicia Castaldi has done a top-notch job. If you’d told me that all these pictures were actual photographs of real notes, tickets, clippings, casts, etc. I wouldn’t have blinked. I did blink a little though when I found that everything here was digitally rendered. I mean, it makes sense. These clippings and ephemera just doesn’t appear that way at first glance, which is a good thing. There’s nothing worse than a children’s book that makes a big whopping deal about its very obvious computer graphic underpinnings. In this light Castaldi is positively subtle. Everything presented here reeks of reality. From Ginny’s doodles to her handwriting to the organized clutter of each and every page, kids reading this book will have the sense that they’re snooping in someone else’s home (an alluring thought right there).
Jennifer Holm does include some journal entries, but it would have been all too easy to rely on those sections a lot more. And had this book been a journal with a note thrown in here and there then it would have ended up looking like every other diary/journal/memory book of middle school currently in existence. No good. The journal is used very sparingly then. Only when we need a little more clarification on a point or understanding of a character. None of this is to say that characters don’t receive a little depth in other ways too. The older brother Henry portions are particularly smart. At some point Holm must have realized that if you hear about Henry secondhand and only learn about his vandalism and brushes with the law then he’s not going to come across as a very likable fellow. We might be able to make assumptions regarding his motives but due to the limited scope of the format we can’t find out too much about his personality. Enter Matthew Holm. Jennifer Holm’s real life brother illustrates a couple comic strips by Henry in which it’s amazingly clear that in spite of his disregard for rules, Henry truly loves and wants to protect his little sister. A clever and oddly touching addition.
By and large, almost everything in this book works. The narrative, such as it is, flows evenly and Holm knows how to take her readers from A to B to C. There are some small exceptions here and there, of course. For example, it took me, personally, an embarrassingly long time to figure out that Henry was Ginny’s older brother. Because you don’t see any photographs of faces kids may have a hard time keeping the characters apart sometimes. This will vary from reader to reader, of course.
Oddly enough I see “Middle School Is Worse Than Meatloaf” as the obvious companion to Jeff Kinney’s, Diary of a Wimpy Kid. They’re very different formats tackling very similar subjects with very opposite genders. Both highlight the misery of middle school, but their humor works off of one another well. Best of all, girls will get a kick out of “Wimpy Kid” while boys will acknowledge the cool format and fun storyline that works with “Worse Than Meatloaf”. They may be preferred by their own genders, but both books will be adored by members of the opposite sex if discovered. All in all, consider Holm’s latest accomplishment a mix of catharsis and eye-popping visual stimulation. It’s a light-hearted story delivered by the hand of someone who knows very much how to tell a tale and tell it well. The insanity of its subject matter has never been more accurately relayed.
Misc: Illustrator Elicia Castaldi wins the award for best website-loading theme song. Check out her site