Friday, February 5, 2016

The Only Girl in School by Natalie Standiford, 2016

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From the acclaimed author of The Secret Tree comes the story of a girl who finds herself a sudden outsider in the loneliest place in the world--middle school.
When Claire's best friend moves away just before the start of fifth grade, Claire suddenly becomes the only girl in the entire elementary school. While the boys are resentful that she gets a bathroom all to herself, Claire soon sees the lonelier side of things--until a few incidents put her quite literally in the spotlight.

(256 pages)

I wonder what it is about playing with gender in schools.

This isn't the first book I've reviewed this year about someone attending a school with a bunch of classmates of the opposite gender. In fact, Lee Gjertsen Malone's The Last Boy at St. Edith's is almost the exact same story as The Only Girl in School, except with a gender swap - here it's a girl amongst boys, and in the other it's a boy amongst girls.

The thing is, though, that even though the two books are so similar they still manage to have some very large differences - mainly with the setting and the side-plots - and Standiford manages to win me over far more than Malone ever did. And it's sad, because I really love the concept and would have happily gobbled up two books approaching it from opposite sides (in fact, that's why I requested ARCs of both books), but The Only Girl in School does such a great job (and without the attempts at political correctness) that The Last Boy at St. Edith's pales in comparison.

Enough about The Last Boy at St. Edith's, though - my review of that book will go live in a couple of weeks, and you can more of my thoughts about it then. In the meantime, let's talk about Standiford's novel. Do I think it was the best book ever, and that it will be raised up onto pillars of greatness and admired for all of eternity? Why no, no I don't. But I did enjoy it, from the small-town setting to Claire's lonely outcast position, and I was engaged from page 1 to page 256. And yes, the book doesn't even hit three-hundred pages. It's pretty short, definitely, but there's enough going on that it doesn't feel overly clipped.

A word about the setting: I actually lived in Maryland for four and a half years (up until two months ago!), so I thought I knew most of what there was to know about it. I never imagined, though, that the same state that held Baltimore City could have such a small-town island like the one Claire lives on. Claire's home in The Only Girl in School actually reminds me a lot more of Quinnie's in The Maypop Kidnapping (my review) than it does of my own experiences in Maryland. And I find that really funny because The Maypop Kidnapping is set in rural Maine, which is not really something I would normally associate with Maryland. The author bio says that Standiford was born and raised in Maryland, though, so I'm just going to assume her home was more rural than mine and that the setting is realistic. It makes me interested in finding out whether Foyes Island is a real place.

The technique of telling the story in letters actually works really well here, much better than the diary format I've seen in some other books. A few times Bess (the girl who moved away, leaving Claire as the last female student) responds to Claire's letters, and we don't get to read her letters but we do get the gist of what she says through Claire's responses. That works really well to keep the narration realistic (and often funny), while still keeping the narrative focus squarely on Claire.

The only other thing I wanted to touch on was the bullying that Claire faces at school, the majority of which rings true. I didn't really like Henry's mean behavior throughout the novel, because he's a total jerk to his ex-best friend and his motives (which are explained in the denouement) are: a) no real excuse, and b) kind of unrealistic, considering how old they're supposed to be. I understand the need for him to behave the way he does, for the sake of the plot, but I still kind of hate him for caving so easily to societal expectations and basically dumping his best friend in the dirt the minute she was slightly uncool. I also don't completely approve of the way Claire treats Gilbert, the boy with a crush on her whom she calls "Yucky Gilbert."

All in all, though, this was a fun read that I really enjoyed. It's the kind of story I can see being a big hit with kids in elementary and middle school, and which would make a fun discussion starter about bullying and the struggle to fit in.

Also, I bet kids will love Claire's hunt for Smuggler Joe's treasure.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary ARC of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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