Stacy Kramer and Valerie Thomas's Karma Bites
Children's book review by Steve Barancik
Magic vs. Middle School Cliques
There is so much happening in Karma Bites that it can be nearly overwhelming for the adult brain, poorly trained in the art of multitasking. Fortunately, this wonderful book is aimed at a middle grade audience.
Franny Flanders has a lot going on. Her younger twin brothers are hyper and insane, her parents are newly splitsville, and her bizarro grandmother has recently moved in. To top it all off, a new school year is starting, and middle school social pressures have pulled Franny's lifelong BFFs - Joey (a girl) and Kate (also a girl) - decidedly apart, leaving Franny to shuttle uncomfortably between social spheres.
To describe Franny's middle school as cliquish is like describing a Category 5 hurricane as breezy and offering a chance of rain.
The Peaks, Geeks, Smeeks, Beeks, Govs and Juvies are not only distinct but wholly segregated and arranged hierarchically. To paraphrase a quote from Franny somewhere in this engrossing 340 page read (could someone buy this reviewer a searchable e-reader, please?), Our middle school makes the caste system in India look egalitarian.
Or as Elodie, the reprehensible girl-demon who refers to herself as La Principessa and enforces the set-in-cement school social strata, puts it:
I've got a little news flash for you: middle school is not fair. Everyone is not supposed to get along. Things run more smoothly when there's a benevolent dictator in charge, and that's me.
It says a lot about Elodie that she sees herself as benevolent.
The story kicks into gear when Franny happens upon her grandma's magic box, a relic from Gran's Eastern travels. Gran treats the box with great respect and has only begun to cautiously explore its powers. (Franny, of course, throws caution to the wind.)
Present the box a problem and it spits out a solution...in the form of a recipe or craft project. (Have I mentioned that while both boys and girls will likely love this book, the boys will probably want to pretend they're not reading it?)
For instance, perhaps La Principessa might benefit from some Naturally Nice Nog. (Recipes are included in the book.)
Franny Flanders is a tremendously engaging narrator. She speaks a language all her own (as do each of her friends, relatives and acquaintances). Her frenetic internal dialogue drives the story and reminds me of what I always assumed must be going on in the overactive mind of a close friend of mine...a close friend who just happens to be Stacy Kramer, co-author of the book, along with her friend, Valerie Thomas.
One striking feature of the book for me was its setting. Karma Bites clearly takes place in an upscale and rather idyllic urban/suburban venue. These kids are well-educated and seem to lack for nothing. They don't have to worry about where their next meal is coming from or whether the school metal detectors are working. Franny's folks co-parent effectively - despite their split -and wish nothing but the best for each other.
Whether or not this will strike your child as alien or unrealistic, it frees the characters to fully explore their preteen insecurities, without having to worry about larger issues. I found it joyful to read about kids getting to be kids. The stakes are huge in the characters' minds, but not in the larger scheme of things. I liked that.
The book's humor and attitude are non-stop and densely packed, and Franny has a delightful degree of self-knowledge, if not self-control. But what I like most about Karma Bites is how the characters think and express themselves. In a society where we seem to be trending away from thought in favor of mere stimulation, the kids in Karma Bites are comfortable with learning, putting their knowledge to use, being smart and expressing themselves with stunning clarity.
Isn't that nice?
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