Sunday Afternoon Visits: December 17
Two Axle Annie Books: Robin Pulver

Beacon Street Girls: Annie Bryant

I had heard vaguely of the Beacon Street Girls books, a series by Annie Bryant aimed at tween girls, with a focus on providing strong positive role models, but had never read one. When the publisher (B*tween Productions, Inc.) offered to send me a couple of books, I was happy to have the opportunity to see what all the fuss was about. And I'm pleased to report that the Beacon Street Girls rock!

I read the first book in the series, Worst Enemies/Best Friends, and the sixth, Lake Rescue. In the first book, four very different girls start seventh grade at Abigail Adams Junior High, in Brookline, MA. Charlotte is a dreamer and writer, newly moved to the US, after years of world travel with her author father. She's a bit of a klutz, and knows that it's hard to make friends in a new place. Her teacher groups her with the stylish and aloof Katani, the boy-crazy drama queen Maeve, and the athletic Avery at an assigned lunch table. The girls get off to a rocky start, when Charlotte's clumsiness causes disaster, but eventually they learn to accept one another's good qualities, and become friends. They form a clubhouse in a cool, forbidden tower in Charlotte's Victorian home, and help one another through a series of adventures concerning romance, a mysterious landlady, and a dog that needs a home.

By the sixth book, the original four Beacon Street Girls have been joined by a fifth, Isabel, an artist with financial worries due to her mother's illness. The five friends have varying reactions when they learn that their class is going on a four-day camping trip to Lake Rescue in New Hampshire. Charlotte and Avery, who enjoy the outdoors and hiking, are excited about the trip, while the more clothes-and-comfort conscious Katani and Maeve are skeptical, and Isabel worries about the cost of required clothing. But of course they all go to camp, where they have a series of adventures, and learn some things about themselves.

The primary sub-plot in this book concerns a sixth girl, not part of their group, named Chelsea. Chelsea is significantly overweight, and is a subject of ridicule by some of the other kids in the class (though not the Beacon Street Girls, of course). Through the help of the Beacon Street Girls, and a camp counselor with personal experience in losing weight, Chelsea develops a new, healthier perspective. She also gives a bully a bit of a comeuppance, which is nice to see.

These books are filled with positive messages. Just because someone looks different from you on the outside doesn't mean that you won't have things in common. Lying to your friends or family will likely lead to disaster - it's better to trust them to accept the truth. Be loyal to your friends. Respect yourself. And so on. The Beacon Street Girls actually have a bill of rights that includes things like "We will try to eat healthy and stay active. How can you chase your dream if you can't keep up?" and "We will go for it - how will we know what we can do if we don't try?".

As regular readers of this blog know, I'm not generally a fan of "message books", where the story is packaged around some point that the author is trying to make. But I'm going to make an exception for the Beacon Street Girls, for a couple of reasons. First of all, I applaud the publisher's aspiration of providing books for girls of this age that aren't about sex, and are about healthy friendships, body image, interactions, etc. It's a tough age range in our society, and one that's getting pressured all the time to grow up more quickly. Providing books that these girls can read, that are interesting and fun, and an alternative to more mature-themed titles, is a worthy goal.

The other reason that I'm making an exception of the BSG series is that although the messages are strong, the characters and stories are strong, too. The books use a device of shifting narrator (by chapter, so that it's not too confusing), which keeps things interesting, and gives different readers a chance to identify with one narrator or another. Because the girls are so different, and cover a range of races and ethnicities, most girls should be able to find at least one BGS with which to identify. The books are also sprinkled with lists, school assignments, journal entries, and IM session transcripts, which keep things fun. The characterization is reasonably strong, given the number of characters that we have to keep up with - each girl has specific and consistent traits from book to book. The dialog can often be followed without attribution, because we know which girl would have which reaction. I think that kids will find this comforting.

Several side characters are great, too. Katani's grandmother, the school principal, is gracious and talented, and firm yet empathetic to her charges. Katani's mildly autistic sister Kelly brims forth with genuine goodwill, even though she sometimes crosses the boundaries of acceptable behavior. Nick, the boy that Charlotte likes, is pretty much a perfect middle school girl's dream (nice, interested in what Charlotte has to say, someone who looks out for people in trouble, etc.).

What also helps to keep the books from being preachy is that there are negative characters ("mean girl" type bullies, and thoughtless boys), and that the main characters tease each other, and make mistakes. They also have problems (Charlotte misses her deceased mother, Katani feels compared to her athletic older sisters, Maeve has to care for her pesky younger brother, and deal with her parent's divorce, Avery is adopted, and sometimes sensitive about that), regular problems with which readers will be able to relate. There's a blurb on the back of the first book by a 13 year old named Natalie who says "This book is exactly what my life is like." I know it's a marketing thing to put a quote like that on the book, but I believe that there are many girls who will feel the same way.

Overall, I quite enjoyed these books. I look forward to checking out others from the series. The website is fun, too, with prizes and games and activities. If you have or know a nine to eleven year old girl, I highly recommend giving her the first book in this series for Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, or just because you think that she'll like it. Of course, you may be setting yourself up to have to buy all nine books in the regular series so far, plus the side series of adventure books. But I think it will be well worth it.

Books: Worst Enemies/Best Friends and Lake Rescue
Author: Annie Bryant
Publisher: B*tween Productions, Inc.
Original Publication Date: 2005
Pages: 212 and 226, plus fun tips and facts in the endpages of each
Age Range: 9-13
Source of Books: Review copies from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews and Mentions: A review at To Read or Not to Read, An interview with the BSG's creator at Pop Goes the Library, and a mention at Big A little a, where Kelly's daughter is a fan.

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.