My One Hundred Adventures by Polly Horvath.
From Alice to Zen and Everyone in Between by Elizabeth Atkinson.
In fiction and in life, odd and quirky either works or it doesn’t. In From Alice to Zen and Everyone in Between, it works even though I had to push through a little discomfort with the seemingly stereotypical characters at first. In Polly Horvath’s My One Hundred Adventures, the quirkiness falls flat, and I was left wondering whether the author meant for the characters to be believable or not.
From Alice to Zen is a tale mostly about Alice, an only child who just moved with her parents from Boston to Major Suburbia. The cliches start coming fast and furious from the beginning of the book: a suburban cul-de-sac filled with snooty suburbanites, an old tree that almost got cut down by the builders of Hemlock Estates, role-reversal in which the boy that Alice meets loves fashion magazines and decorating ideas while Alice herself prefers soccer and go-carts, the popular clique at school, a crazy grandma. But somehow just when I thought “Oh, this is a how to be popular and why it’s not worth it book” or “Yeah, this is a misfit somehow learns to fit in” book or this is a “boys and girls break out of stereotypical roles” book or even “this is a be true to yourself” book, the story would transcend all of those formulas while incorporating them at the same time.
Back up a step. Alice goes looking for a friend in her new suburban neighborhood, and she happens to meet Zen, Zenithal Stevie Wonder Malinowski. If Zen is anything, he’s strange, quirky, weird, odd. He’s overweight. He loves lemonade and fashion and teen magazines. He’s allergic to the sun. He crimps his hair. He wants to give Alice a makeover so that she’ll be ready to enter middle school. His ambition is to open a total body salon in California. He’d be weird even in California.
Zen made me a little uncomfortable at first. There’s an obvious role reversal thing going on in the book, and sometimes it’s a little over the top. It’s hard to believe that any intelligent twelve year old wouldn’t realize that acting the way Zen acts is a recipe for social ostracism. And it’s hard to believe that Zen wouldn’t at least try to mitigate his behavior to fit in at school. Still, in the book he doesn’t, and by the end of the story he’s able to demonstrate for the entire school his “one true voice.”
Zen’s “church” Seacoast Spiritual Center (hosted by Elder Brightstar) also made me a little uneasy. It’s obvious from the description in the book that Zen goes to a New Age, leftover hippie, spiritually anything goes gathering for social misfits and crystal gazers. It’s not my idea of real spiritual sustenance. But the people at Seacoast are a loving and accepting community who take Zen as he is and help him to develop his own gifts, not a bad pattern for the true church of Jesus Christ to emulate. It really is possible to accept people with all their eccentricities while maintaining a set of core beliefs that are non-negotiable.
Jane, the protagonist and narrator of My One Hundred Adventures, also has a weird church and a weird family. Jane herself is boringly conventional, but she and her mom live a bohemian life in a beach house along with Jane’s three younger siblings. And over the course of the summer a succession of men come along, one of whom may or may not be Jane’s dad. Jane also becomes enslaved to a Bible-toting healer/preacher/fortune teller and to the wife of a violent alcoholic who needs a babysitter for her unruly kids. Jane’s “adventures” (not nearly 100, which bothered me) consist of being blackmailed into babysitting and being coerced into dropping Bibles on unsuspecting victims. The writing is good, but the story is just too odd to be believable or enjoyable.
So, in the final analysis I’m saying yes to the quirky unconventional characters, but no to a plot that’s too quirky or creaky to sustain my interest.
Other reviews of these books:
Diane Chen at Practically Paradise on From Alice to Zen: I love the realistic questioning and searching for one’s self that occurs in this book. Alice doesn’t need excessive drama to realize she can make choices and be herself in middle school. She finds a way to accept herself, make her own choices of friends, and help others gain acceptance.
Tanya at Children’s Books on My One Hundred Adventures: “I was overwhelmed with admiration for Polly Horvath’s skill at writing a virtual minefield of spirit crushing adults for her main character to navigate, coming out scathed, but whole and, in Jane’s case, with a budding sense of compassion, acceptance and appreciation for the world around her.”