Wednesday, June 10, 2015

2016 Contenders: Ms. Rapscott's Girls, by Elise Primavera

There is no need to apply to Great Rapscott School for the Daughters of Busy Parents. If you are among the few children whose parents are busy enough to qualify, they will fill out the application for you. They will also send you a box, into which your parents may seal you, so that the box may fly you directly to the school. The five little girls who make their way to Great Rapscott by these extraordinary means are a sad set of specimens, known for being loud, lazy, bumbling, and older/younger than their years, respectively. Fear not, though! Ms. Rapscott and her assisting corgis (Lewis and Clark) will straighten them out in no time. 

Ms. Rapscott's Girls is like a literary fusion of Roald Dahl, P.L. Travers, and an amalgamation of every boarding school novel ever written. In fact, it's so thoroughly infused with the spirit of Roald Dahl that as I listened*, I couldn't help but picture the characters as if they were drawn by Quentin Blake. Like that of Dahl, Primavera's prose is full of keen satire and sharp wit, but it lacks Dahl's fatalism. In fact, she seems to be commenting on Dahl's worldview when she allows the children to break out of the awful qualities for which they are "known," and which are actually only bad habits they've gained through their parents' neglect. 

That makes the novel sound darker and heavier than it is, though. It's really a confection of a book, filled with the aforementioned helpful corgis, bumbershoot trees, perilous parachute journeys, and wormholes that lead to the Alps. It's difficult to judge a book like this in terms of the Newbery criteria, in part because it doesn't feel like a very American book to me: this combination of satire and fancy is very British. 

So: are the characters fully developed? Not according to the terms of realistic fiction, but for this genre, yes - and they experience growth over the course of the book. The settings are likewise both ridiculous and well-realized. Stylistically, the prose is highly derivative, but also sparkling and agile. Interestingly, for a book that's working within a potentially moralistic genre, the themes of self-reliance and self-determination are imparted with a light hand. 

It feels like too slight a book to win a place in the Newbery pantheon. Also, though it's uplifting in the end, it has the kind of bite that doesn't play well in a typical Newbery book. But then again, the committees have been doing an admirable job of redefining "Newbery book," so who knows? Either way, it's lots of fun. 

Published March 10th 2015 by Dial Books

*Yes, I experienced this one, like so many others, as an audiobook. I have no idea what the illustrations look like, but I gather that it's heavily illustrated. Also, the audiobook is read by Katherine Kellgren, and it is wonderful.

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