Young Adult Education

Young Adult Education: ‘The Agony of Alice' by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

When I started reading Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Alice books, I was in the fourth grade and Alice was starting sixth grade. Now I’m 25, and Alice just graduated from high school. Even though Phyllis Reynolds Naylor comes out with a new Alice book every May (and that’s in addition to the other books she writes. The woman’s a machine!), Alice is aging pretty slowly. That’s fine by me. Once there are no more Alice books, I’m going to have to face some pretty uncomfortable truths about my own mortality and frankly, I’m not ready for that.

The Alice books deal honestly with serious issues, which is probably why they were the most banned books of 2003. There are the usual teen-girl-novel issues like friendships, family problems, boy trouble and periods, but things get intense in the later books. There are pregnancies, deaths, a sexual predator teacher and even neo-Nazis. That’s not to say the books are purely sensational; at heart, the books are about Alice trying to make sense of her life, her friends, her dad, her brother Lester and boys. Alice is the everygirl heroine, juxtaposed with her best friends Elizabeth (religious, sheltered and worried) and Pamela (loud, bold and theatrical). Alice is just herself, and that’s why she works so well. We spend the books in Alice’s head and start to feel like we are Alice.

The Agony of Alice, the first book in the series, starts off with Alice listing some of her most humiliating moments. What girl can’t relate to that? I lived in a constant state of embarrassed misery from the time I was 10 to…now, I guess. Still, at least I never wrote a poem like the one Alice gave to her milkman:

“There are lots of drops in the ocean,
There are lots of stars in the blue;
But in the whole state of Maryland,
There’s only one person like you.”

This poem embarrasses Alice so much that “as soon as I remembered the milkman, I wondered if he was still alive, and somewhere, deep inside me, I sort of hoped he wasn’t. I didn’t want anybody remembering that poem.”

Alice’s mother died when she was just a baby. “The trouble with this,” Alice explains, “is that I never know exactly who I’m supposed to be like or how I’m supposed to act. What I need, I guess, is a pattern, a road map; but all I’ve got is a father and Lester.” So Alice is on a constant search for a female role model; she’s always evaluating the women in her life and learning what she can from them. She admires her Aunt Sally for being strong and determined. She admires her cousin Carol for being super chill and wearing old clothes but still looking great. She admires Lester’s momentary girlfriend, Marilyn, for really rocking a peasant blouse.

And then there’s Mrs. Plotkin. Although the book deals with Alice’s relationship with the main men in her life (Dad, Lester, first boyfriend/sexy crossing guard/redheaded world traveler Patrick Long), it’s her relationship with her teacher, Mrs. Plotkin, that really drives the book. At first Alice is upset she doesn’t get the young, pretty teacher or the fun, singing teacher, instead ending up with “pear-shaped” Mrs. Plotkin. As it turns out, she’s exactly who Alice has been searching for. Mrs. P tells the class to keep a journal because writing “gets you over the rough places,” and she lets them paperclip the pages they don’t want her to read because “it’s all right have secrets, as long as you don’t have any secrets from yourself.” Mrs. Plotkin becomes a mother figure for Alice, and at the end of the book she ends up giving Alice such a sweet gift that I actually teared up.

I wish I could stop picking out books that make me cry. Maybe next week.

Some Highlights

-Alice keeps a list (YA heroines love lists!) of the ways she’s growing Forward and Backward. The “Forward” list includes “raise guppies,” and the “Backward” list includes “can’t buy a bra.”

-Alice asks Lester what a period is and he answers, “A comma without a tail.” No wonder she needs a female role model.

-When the McKinleys are moving into their house, Alice is so excited because her Dad promises to order a pizza. Then her new neighbor and future best friend Elizabeth Price shows up with her mom and a dinner for the McKinleys. Instead of being grateful, Alice is so upset she doesn’t get pizza, and I totally understood that feeling when I was 11. I still kind of get it now. Also, Alice says, “This tastes like dead birds,” when they eat it.

-When Lester takes Alice shopping for jeans at the Gap, he’s so clueless that he gives her men’s jeans to try on. The Gap is clearly divided into a men’s half and a women’s half! Get it together, Les!

-“I began scribbling things on my notebook cover. All the kids have notebooks that are scribbled up with words and drawings and things, and I wanted mine to look old and used—as if I’d been going to Parkhaven Elementary all my life…It suddenly occurred to me that Mrs. Plotkin was married. I looked up and stared. I couldn’t quite believe it. Somebody loved her. Passionately. Somebody got in bed with her every night and had breakfast with her every morning. Life is weird, I wrote on the front of my notebook, and decorated the letters with little flowers and scrolls.” I’m, like, 98% sure I wrote that on the cover of my notebook in elementary school.

-“I do a lot of my dying at the table, actually. There are just too many things that can go wrong.”-Alice on embarrassment at dinner.

-When Marilyn comes over in her peasant top, Alice is sartorially inspired: “I went upstairs and put on my long blue nightgown and my best blouse over the top, so I’d look like Marilyn.”

-When Alice finally kisses Patrick: “Alice McKinley, I told myself, you can giggle and squirm and fall off the swing, or you can just get it over with.”

If you haven’t yet read The Agony of Alice, don’t walk, run (or drive, I guess. I don’t know how close you are to a bookstore) to get yourself a copy. If you hurry, you can get through all the Alice books before Phyllis Reynolds Naylor comes out with a new one this May!

Are there any young adult books you’d like to see in Young Adult Education? Let us know in the comments!

Image via Vintage Children’s Books