A quick glance at this young adult book might give you the misleading idea that this is just a story about a cute high school sophomore, Frankie (Francis), who manages to snag a “gorgeous” senior boyfriend, Matthew, thereby acquiring status and happiness all at once. But this simple premise belies a more complex reality. Frankie may be quite physically appealing, but she wants to be appreciated for more than just her looks. She chafes at being considered simple and sweet and inconsequential.
In the summer prior to her sophomore year, a lot happens to Frankie. Most significantly, she “fills out” and becomes attractive to the opposite sex. At the beach, she flirts with a boy who seems to like her. When school starts, she finds out he is one of the most popular boys, known as Alpha (for “top dog”), but he pretends not to know her. His best friend, however, the previously mentioned gorgeous Matthew, notices the newly nubile Frankie right away and becomes her boyfriend. Alpha isn’t helpful; he might be jealous, but more importantly, he sees Frankie as a threat to the hold he has over his group of male friends.
Frankie sets out to prove to them that she can be a valuable member of the crowd; that she is more than just ornamentation. But she runs up against barriers she never expected. One surprising discovery is that the guys don’t really care if Frankie has a bunch of ideas that are more clever than anything they can make up; when the guys get together, they are more interested in male bonding for itself than the nature of what they actually do together. It’s a barrier she simply can’t pierce.
I found this so intriguing. It reminded me of reading about African-American Geoffrey Canada, the superstar education innovator whose story I reviewed a while ago. He talks about how much time he spends in the corporate world surrounded by very wealthy whites, with whom he is totally comfortable. And yet, the level of comfort, feeling of bondedness, and ease of coexistence it is nothing like what he feels when he gets back with his neighborhood “homeboys.” When I read Canada’s story, I felt a sort of theoretical wistful longing – a realization that here was a group to which a newcomer could never belong. I saw that same longing (albeit not theoretical) in Frankie, knowing she can never really be “one of the boys.”
It also reminds me of what happens in the movie “Grease.” There, the Olivia Newton-John character meets the John Travolta character during the summer, and they have a romance. When they get back in school, however, Travolta has to act “cool” and Newton-John doesn’t cut the mustard. But after she gives up who she is and transforms herself into a more socially acceptable sexpot, everything turns out happy.
Frankie doesn’t want to “win” by being a sexy babe. She wants to win by virtue of her heart, brains and courage. But she would be better off hanging out with the Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Lion and heading off to Oz, where only magic can break through the reality of socialization and perhaps ingrained species adaptational behavior.
It is not only Frankie’s family who still thinks of her as “Bunny Rabbit.” And it is not only in fiction that stereotypical roles linger. The popularity of “Grease” is a case in point. (In 1979 “Grease” took over the record as the longest-running show in the history of Broadway and the hit film starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John proved to be the highest-grossing movie musical ever.) “Pretty Woman” (sometimes known as “Pretty Sexist”) in which the prostitute with heart of gold is transformed into Cinderella and rescued by a handsome corporate prince, grossed an estimated box office total of over US$450 million as of March, 2010, making it the most successful romantic comedy of all time.
But some women, like young Frankie, do believe there is more to life than being a “bunny rabbit.” Frankie was envious of what Matthew and his male friends had that was conferred on them not by inner worth, but simply by gender and class:
“Expensive clothes and high status had little effect on Frankie. But their money and popularity made life extremely easy for Matthew, Dean, Alpha, and Callum. They did not need to impress anyone and were therefore remarkably free from snarkiness, anxiety, and irksome aspirational behaviors, such as competition over grades and evaluation of one another’s clothing. They were not afraid to break the rules, because consequences rarely applied to them. They were free. They were silly. They were secure.”
Frankie needs to figure out what she really wants. And she has to decide what to do when she finally figures that why Matthew likes her is that she is “a smaller, younger person that he was, with no social power.” If it is only by acting a role that she can get the respect and freedom she craves, but it’s not the kind of respect to which she aspires, what are her choices? And how will her decision affect how she feels about herself and her future?
Evaluation: Excellent book for young girls (and all the older girls who used to be young girls). Lots and lots of material for discussion.
Published by Hyperion, 2008
National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature (2008)
Michael L. Printz Award Nominee (2009)
South Carolina Book Award Nominee for Young Adult Book Award (2011)
Florida Teens Read Nominee (2009)
Iowa Teen Award Nominee (2011)
Abraham Lincoln Award Nominee (2011)