The Plot: Meet Parker Bell, Ikea Bentley, Plum Petrovsky, Kiki Allen — four best friends who are about to start eighth grade at Wallingford Academy. All are “legacies,” also called Aristobrats (but not to their faces). In addition to being second and third generation “Wallys,” they are the four most popular girls at school.
Parker needs that popularity, that friendship, that acceptance, because her Aristobrat status is a bit of an illusion. Oh, she’s a legacy, all right. The thing is, the family money is gone and her single mother struggles to pay the bills. Looming over Parker is the knowledge that this could be her last year at Wally — it could be her last month. She may not even last the year! So it has to be perfect, perfect, perfect: perfect friendships, perfect boyfriend. She has the EGB (Eighth Grade Boyfriend) all picked out: Tribb. She has her popularity in place, and works on it daily with Facebook and MySpace. Her perfect plans go haywire when she and her friends are assigned to do the very unpopular school webcast. What can she do to save herself and her friends from this horror?
The Good: A perfect middle school read: fun and breezy with depth. The fun comes from the friendship and antics of “Aristobrats” Parker, Ikea, Plum and Kiki. In The Aristobrats, the two girls we learn the most about Parker and Ikea. Parker is likable, but also oddly arrogant — I can see why others would call her an “Aristobrat.” She assumes that Tribb will be her EGB even when they haven’t really spoken for weeks. She prepares her first day of school outfit with a ton of care, and having gone to schools that require uniforms, yes, it’s not that simple! Anyway, Parker thinks, “Altogether, the look said confident but not stuck up, pretty but not self-obsessed, excited but not super-anxious about it.” She immediately realizes, “although wouldn’t staring at myself in the mirror for twenty minutes technically be considered stuck up or merely a commitment to excellence?” When a new girl starts school, Parker generously tells her that if she Friends her on Facebook, she’ll accept it. Parker considers asking Allegra (an overachiever and so not popular) to sit at the Good Table at lunch, Parker decides that “maybe Allegra doesn’t want to sit here. [It] can be a really intimidating place for most people.” But here’s the thing — Parker and friends are never mean or nasty. They don’t pick on kids or ridicule them.
Parker and the Aristobrats have many rules about what is in and what isn’t acceptable. Friendship rings? In. Macrame bracelets? Out. One of the subtle points about the book is how the girls outside begin to ignore these rules because a new girl in school is slowly rising up the popularity ladder. Parker notices the other girls wearing headbands like the new girl, realizes that Kiki’s latest haircut isn’t being copied by others, sees some girls wearing macrame bracelets, and doesn’t realize that the Aristobrats’s influence isn’t what it used to be. Parker’s expectations about Tribb are also not quite realistic or realized.
Why does Parker like rules? “Making up rules always got her back in a posimood. Rules were like happy pre-lated birthday presents — there was nothing bad about them.” Parker cannot control the absence of a dad, any moment her mother may sell the house, Parker may lose her friends and school — but she can control certain things with “the rules.” What’s great is that Solow never explicitly feeds that connection to the reader.
Ikea (“pronounced I-kay-a, like the exotic African lodge where she was conceived, not I-kee-ya, like the un-exotic Swedish furniture store“), is one of the few children of color at Wallingford and the only African American girl in her class. She’s Miss Preppy and under tremendous pressure from her attorney father to go to Yale, just like he did. When Ikea is introduced, she has glossy straight hair and hazel eyes. She gets annoyed that people think she should date the only African American boy at Wally. A scene midway through the book shows Ikea sitting in the bathroom straightening her hair with a hot comb and putting in contact lenses to hide her brown eyes. The Aristobrats raise questions abouts beauty and the under-representation of children of color at Wallingford, without being a heavy-handed message book.
What else? The romance is cute and light. Yes, some of the girls want EGBs but their dream idea of a boyfriend is someone to talk to in the hallways and at lunch, to go to a dance, and — maybe — kiss. The friendship is also great; the girls agree to do the webcast, which they don’t want to do, because they know it’s important to Ikea. Each Aristobrat is true to herself and they respect their differences. I look forward to more books in the series, to find out more about Plum and her offbeat taste, Kiki and her extravagances, as well as whether Parker will stay in school, whether Ikea keeps her father’s respect (and her brown eyes!), and what happens next with webcasts.