on August 17, 2007
" 'Wait. You aren't really friends with Matteo, are you? Do you know his mom is like a maid?' "
So asks Kirsten McKenna's former best friend, Rory.
Kirsten, daughter of a wealthy Marin County, CA physician begins seventh grade after having had a lousy summer:
"Every day this summer was like crap: dog crap, cat crap -- I even had a few elephant crap days. Trust me, it was bad."
All summer long Rory has essentially been out of contact with Kirsten. All summer long Kirsten's mother and father, despite living in the same house, have essentially refused direct contact with each other. Kirsten has reacted to all this by putting on 30 pounds over a four month period. And now, as seventh grade begins, she finds that Rory is suddenly running with the in-crowd, including the uber-popular Brianna Hanna-Hines, whose dad "made a billion bucks writing a book, Woman Are Toads. Men Are Toadstools." In fact, the Hanna-Hines family has given so much money to Mountain School (the expensive Marin County private school the book's young characters all attend) that the auditorium is named in the family's honor.
Any harsh visceral reactions to book characters I may have are typically reserved for uber-clueless adults who thoroughly screw up the adolescents in their care. There are so many adolescent characters in so many books who have done so many atrocious things, and yet I find that I follow their exploits with interest and a measure of compassion rather than with venom.
But Brianna H-H is such a piece of work, such a snake, and so brightly does her attitude of entitlement shine, that she reminds me of some combo plate of the most infamous adolescents I've ever known. I uncharacteristically spent the entire evening that I read this book being deeply pissed off at this seventh grade girl character. In fact, I'm still deeply pissed off at that seventh grade girl character.
That is not to say that clueless adults aren't also present here in full force. One of the lessons one might take away from IF A TREE FALLS AT LUNCH PERIOD is that behind every clique of snotty, privileged girls is a clique of snotty, privileged moms who still know how to play the game. I can just imagine Kirsten's own mother back in the Seventies or the Eighties, sucking up to the alpha-girl and taking part in inflicting the sort of hurtful pecking order nonsense on less-fortunate peers that her daughter is now falling victim to.
"There's always one they make fun of, Kirsten. There always is. You do not want to be that one.'
" 'Mom, please.' She's followed me into the kitchen. I grab an Evian.
" 'I want you to have fun, Sweetie. You'll never be young like this again.'
"I snort. 'Thank god.'
" 'Sometimes you have to play the game, Kirsten. You don't want to be like Debby Decaterman. God, did the girls make fun of her. It was awful. But she kind of deserved it, too. She was pathetic.'
" 'Pathetic. I know what that means. It means fat,' I whisper.
"My mother's face darkens. 'I won't have you moping around her feeling sorry for yourself, making poor food choices.' She slams the broom closet door. The dustpan crashes off the hook."
So far, I've only given you one-half of the equation. IF A TREE FALLS AT LUNCH PERIOD is actually told from two alternating points of view: Kirsten's chapters, which are told in the first-person, and Walk's, which are told in the third-person.
Walk -- Walker Wilburt Jones -- is a new student, a scholarship student, at Mountain School:
"Walk wishes Matteo were black instead of Mexican, through. He doesn't like being the only black kid in his grade -- one of three at the whole school. It makes him feel like there's a giant bull's-eye painted on his naked brown booty."
Walk is not only smart and fun, he's insightful, as well as friendly. He and Kirsten meet the first morning of school after Kirsten's mom reacts weirdly upon seeing Walk being dropped off at The School. Walk's immediately got an intuition about Kirsten, and when things are going badly for her he invites her into his own lunch crowd, which includes Matteo, whose one flaw in Walk's eyes is that he lets the popular girls, particularly Brianna, call him Burrito Boy and walk all over him.
Another notably smart character in IF A TREE FALLS AT LUNCH PERIOD is Kirsten's little sister, second-grader Kippy McKenna, who -- at the rate she's going -- will probably be passing her medical Boards before she's old enough to legally drink: " 'You didn't ask about second grade. We are doing an in-deep study of the letter P. P is very important. How could you spell psoriasis without a p? Jenna W. said everyone knows psoriasis starts with an s. And I said, excuse me but it starts with a p. I can spell all the McKenna diseases! Corns. C-o-r-n-s. Vaginitis. V-a-g --' " 'No. Oh please. You didn't say that,' my mother interrupts, her neck flushed. "Kippy nods her little face dead serious."
In this exceptionally engaging contemporary tale that certainly should be taught by sixth and seventh grade English teachers and is sure to become a staple of mother-daughter bookgroups, Gennifer Choldenko has slipped in a number of especially intriguing plot-twists that actually cause the story to make even more sense than it already did. In several instances I'd picked up just enough clues to feel confident that I knew where the story was heading, but was totally and delightedly surprised to find myself wrong.
IF A TREE FALLS AT LUNCH PERIOD is Gennifer Choldenko's best book yet.