My Misadventures as a Teenage Rock Star by Joyce Raskin, illustrated by Carol Chu. Graphia, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2011. Review copy from publisher.
The Plot: Who Alex is: “I’m fourteen years old. I’m a rock star.” Who Alex was: “Alex, short for Alexis. She’s a short, pasty, shy, greasy-haired kid with a face full of acne. The kids in her middle school call her Zit Fit. She looks like she’s ten.” How did Alex go from the girl who wears “Unicorns are Cool” T-shirts to the girl who plays bass?
The Good: Oh, Alex. I confess at first I was a little irritated at young Alex, who narrates the story. “Wearing her best purple and pink matching outfit with a T-shirt that says UNICORNS ARE COOL“? Tragic. Of course the blond girls in the mall laugh at you! I laugh at you, Alex!
Alex’s older brother, Charles, is about to leave for college. Before he does, he gives her something that will change her life. “I hear my brother say that I could play bass for Tod’s band.” Alex is not yet the rock star — but Charles has pushed his younger sister on the path. It doesn’t happen overnight; at first, Alex is doing this to look cool, for her her crush Tod to like her. In a way, Alex is doing this for all the wrong reasons: her older brother is pushing her, she wants to impress Tod, she wants to be cool, she wants to transform herself.
At first, it works! Alex decides to change her looks, and it’s so different (combat boots, bobbed hair, thrift store clothes) that a cute skateboard boy, Stan, thinks she’s new to town and asks her out. She has a boyfriend!
But then — it works for real. Alex has only thought about initial, shallow transformation but what happens is a different, deeper transformation. Headache and heartache happen along the way, and Alex doesn’t realize what is happening, but along the way she starts to really enjoy the music, she likes being in a band, she finds her own music, she finds her own sound. In finding her own confidence, she goes from being the person who watches her skateboard boyfriend to being the girl who skateboards.
What I like about Alex’s transformation is that often, we get stories about girls who know what they want: to be in the band, to dance, to write, to be a scientist. A book or movie shows what happens as they succeed at what they desire. Not every fouteen year old (or any person of any age!) “knows” what it is they want, or has that desire and fixed dream. It’s refreshing to see a journey that takes place from doing something (playing guitar in a band) rather than the desire to do something (playing guitar in a band.) It’s like this — you can smile because you are happy. But smiling can make you happy. Alex, by acting strong and independent, eventually becomes strong and independent.
My Misadventures is a slim book; the story ends on page 87, with another twenty-odd pages on playing the guitar, writing music, and about the author and her band, Scarce. I admit, being used to longer tomes, I was at first a little frustrated by the minimalist approach the author took. I wanted more details! But then, it clicked: this book is not a how-to book. It is not a book that uses two hundred words when two will do. Raskin is a musician, and in a way My Misadventures is very much like songs. The chapters are called stories — Story #1, Story #2, etc. Each story has a title, like the songs on an album: “My First Combat Boots,” “Never Date Someone in Your Band.” Each story gets quickly to the core of what is going on in Alex’s life, what her concerns are, what she is doing. This book is about Alex, and the music, and the bands, but certain details just aren’t here. For example, Alex explains that “our band, the Painted Letters, started playing a couple of dances and parties.” That’s it. This is not the type of book that goes into the mechanics of how the band got those gigs, or the set up, or anything like that. Rather, it jumps right into what is important to Alex and matters to Alex, and focuses tightly on Alex and what she does.
Perhaps it’s because My Misadventures is about a girl joining her local music scene, but I was reminded of Girl by Blake Nelson. Except, of course, Andrea Marr was never in the band; both are about girls coming of age in the music scene. Both are about girls who find themselves, with a few missteps in the way. My Misadventures is for a younger crowd than Girl; there is some kissing but no sex, there is some drinking and pot-smoking by skaters and band mates but Alexherself joins the Straight Edge music scene (“there’s no drinking, smoking, or drug use of any kind, just good punk-rock music.”)
What I may have enjoyed best about My Misadventures is that while Alex begins with dreams such as “nice boobs,” “a boyfriend,” and “lots of friends,” — external markers — in the end what she has achieved is so much more. Instead of daydreaming inside her room of what her life should be, Alex is doing things. Skateboarding, making music. Those activities bring the friends. And — huge cheer — while there are boyfriends in the book, or boys she likes, the book doesn’t end with a boyfriend. This is not a “you need a boyfriend to complete you” book!
With it’s short chapters, short length, quick plotting and to-the-point storytelling, My Misadventures has “reluctant reader appeal” written all over it.
Links: An interview with the author, Joyce Raskin, at Chicktellectual.