No Cream Puffs, by Karen Day, follows 12-year-old Madison through the summer of 1980, during which she tries out for the regional summer baseball league, and suffers a rift with her best friend. She ends up being the first girl in southern Michigan to play on a boys' baseball team. She draws a considerable amount of attention, both for being a girl playing a boy's game, and for being a talented player. No Cream Puffs is about Madison's summer baseball season, with lots of details about the game and about teamwork. But No Cream Puffs is also an exploration of Madison's relationships with her mother, her brother, her estranged best friend, the boys on the team (two of them in particular), and an over-the-hill rock star who has just moved into the neighborhood.
No Cream Puffs is a bit like a cross between Jenny Han's Shug and Mike Lupica's Heat, with a dash of Catherine Gilbert Murdock's Dairy Queen, set in the early 80's. I like how Day handles the 80's setting. That 80's feeling is there in the details, from the very first page (mood rings, feathered hair, and cotton candy lip gloss), but never overwhelms the story. It doesn't feel contrived (unlike another book that I read recently). Setting the book in 1980 was necessary to the plot (it wasn't just some nostalgic whim on the part of the author), because a girl playing baseball wouldn't have been as major an issue if the book was set in 2008. That Madison is the first girl in her area to play is central to the story.
I like Madison -- she's complex and talented, and wants to belong. She fights with her mother in a realistic way. She wonders about her long-lost father, building up fantasies about him and finding ways to blame herself for his absence. She's embarrassed by growing up (especially by how her developing breasts look in a baseball uniform designed for boys). She struggles with being a girl, who is interested in boys, but who just happens to be good at sports. Her friends seem to be making the transition to adolescence much more smoothly than she is (this is the part that really reminded me of Shug). Here are a couple of passages, to help you get to know Madison. The first is about her father, who Madison hasn't seen since she was five.
"I don't remember much about him. Mom said he was "indifferent" and didn't care one way or the other if we stayed or went. But I've always wanted to believe that if he'd gotten to know me, or if he knew me now, he'd like me. He'd want to stick around." (Page 22)
"I can feel Mom's eyes on me, but I won't look at her. What if this is her fault, not Dad's?
But then I see how she's looking at me, her eyes soft. And I feel this space widening between us, like what happens when you're in the lake and you don't hang on to each other's rafts." (Page 125)
This next quote is the bit that reminded me of DJ from Dairy Queen. Madison isn't obsessed with baseball - she more enjoys it because she's good at it.
"I'm not some crazy feminist. I'm playing because I was bored and David pushed me and because, well, because I don't really know why. Because it's something I do well, and that feels pretty great. But what will everyone think now? What will my friends think?" (Page 58)
I thought that the dynamics of Madison's relationship with her best friend Sara were realistic. Friends do grow apart at that age, over differences in the pace of growing up, and over misunderstandings. Things are starting to be complicated, the straightforwardness of childhood is gone, but you don't have the skills to handle things well, either.
I personally enjoyed the details of Madison's baseball games, though some might find those sections a bit detailed. A lot of the focus is on the dynamics of the team -- how the kids relate to and are loyal to one another -- and the ways that the parents interact with their sports-playing children. Those themes are, I think, universal, and probably more familiar to today's elementary school girls than they would have been to girls in 1980. I think that No Cream Puffs is a great book to give to kids who live in baseball-focused regions, like Boston or Chicago, and an excellent choice for kids in general. Despite the sports theme, this seems to me more a book for girls than for boys (the cover is pink, with flowers and lip gloss), though perhaps if you tell them that it's about baseball...
I liked No Cream Puffs a lot. It's a quick, relatively quiet read, but it's heartfelt and authentic, with flashes of humor. I think that women who were in later elementary or junior high school in 1980 will love it. The aging rock star character (named Huey) is a riot (and complex, too). But the real, perfect audience for No Cream Puffs is 10 and 11 year old girls who enjoy realistic fiction, and are struggling with the idea of growing up. Highly recommended.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.