How two tween girls conquer seventh-grade woes

Two new novels with young heroines who learn to make the best of middle school.

For those of you who don't remember, let me tell you a little about seventh grade.

Seventh grade was the year of exclusive sleepovers. It was the year we dissected fetal pigs, and while the girls screamed, the boys chased one another with innards. And seventh grade was the year I wore a rhinestone-studded shirt on school picture day. That, and an enormous black calculator watch.

Thankfully, authors Linda Urban and Jennifer L. Holm understand these – and other – trials of the "tween" years. And while the situations they present may seem wincingly familiar, the chances are that readers are likely to feel at home with these authors' relatable protagonists.

Let's start with 10-year-old Zoe Elias, the main character in Urban's debut novel A Crooked Kind of Perfect (Harcourt, 214 pp., $16). Zoe has yet to face the horrors of middle school, but fifth grade promises its own share of trouble. Think: an ex-best friend; the oddball boy; Mom, who's never home, and Dad, who never leaves the house.

But Zoe's got a plan. A simple one, involving a piano, some lessons, and, eventually, Carnegie Hall. It wouldn't be the tween years if something didn't go awry, though, right? And that's how Zoe ends up playing TV theme songs of yesteryear on a humdinger of an instrument: the Perfectone D-60. An organ.

While Urban's novel takes a more traditional approach to storytelling, Holm chronicles her protagonist's tween tragedy and triumph literally through stuff. In Middle school Is Worse Than Meatloaf (Antheneum Books for Young Readers, 128 pp., $12.99), readers get to know Ginny Davis via instant messages and drugstore receipts, phone bills, and, of course, another botched school photo.

And if Zoe thinks she has it rough, she should meet Ginny's delinquent older brother, her new stepdad, who wears polka-dot boxer shorts, and her dog, Hoover, who really does eat Ginny's science project. (Well, it was made out of dough.)

Portions of my own tween years seemed awful at the time, but they could never measure up to Zoe's or Ginny's. And yet, one of the chief delights about both these novels is the way the authors never let over-the-top get out of hand.

Zoe's organ lessons and trip to the Perform-O-Rama are offbeat to say the least, but they become a metaphor for working with what you have, and loving yourself for who you are – flaws, eccentricities, and all.

Ginny's series of calamities nearly reaches the level of performance art, but in Holm's steady hand, they offer a larger message: No matter how dark or hopeless things seem, look for the pinpricks of light. They're there. (Yes, even in seventh grade.)

In fact, if there's one thing that Urban's and Holm's novels share, it's the reassurance that, outside the myopia that sometimes comes with being 10 or 12, there's actually a lot of good stuff going on. New experiences to look forward to. New talents to discover. And a wonderful collection of relatives, friends, even teachers and – ew! – boys to cheer you on (or pick you up) along the way.

So, what of that totally embarrassing birthday present you bought your ex-best friend? What of the fact that you got fleas because your little brother used your brush on the dog? Urban and Holm never come close to suggesting that these incidents don't matter. After all, I'll never forget the awful, ill-fitting dress I was made to wear in seventh-grade chorus.

But what they do offer readers is the promise that things won't always look so bad. Oh yeah, but in the meantime? You might as well learn how to laugh.

Jenny Sawyer regularly reviews children's books for Monitor.

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