Those who teach middle school are condemned to remember their own middle school experiences, including the memories that most humans have conveniently stored away from themselves. Believe me, I would know. I’m fairly confident that Victoria Jamieson also remembers her own middle school years far too well. Either she writes stories out of her own life, or she has the gift of creating characters and conflicts that scream of universal experiences, a feat that won her a Newbery Honor award for Roller Girl nearly two years ago.

Like Roller Girl, All’s Faire in Middle School is a friendship story inside an unusual setting. In this case, readers are transported to the Florida Renaissance Faire where Imogene Vega’s father is an actor and her mother runs a wreath shop. Her parents have homeschooled her up to grade 5, and now they are sending her off to middle school, where for the first time she’ll be surrounded by same-age peers all day.

Jamieson uses Imogene’s outsider lens to call attention to some of the universals of middle school: you’ll be judged by your shoes, girls will be nice to your face but be vicious out of earshot, you won’t be sure if boys are just being friendly or mean something more, and of course avoid having a roller backpack if at all possible.

It’’s not just middle school that can be unfair (or should I say unfaire?), the adult world has its issues too. These issues are smartly woven into the story, at times below Imogene’s level of immediate consciousness. Her Spanish-speaking dark-skinned father Hugo always plays a villain in the Faire’s production. (“I used to wonder why he never gets to play the good knight, but I guess I’m used to it by now.”). When Imogene accompanies her dad to his off-season job as the manager of a pool supply store, an angry customer insists on speaking to the manager and then calls her dad “amigo.” Imogene is already painstakingly aware of how her parents’ career decisions mean trips to secondhand stores for new clothes while her classmates live in palaces. At one point, Imogene lashes out at her parents for being poor.

There are other inviting subplots to this story that revolve around Renaissance Faire activities like juggling and jousting, but the most resonant aspects of this story are the social struggles with coming of age and the responsibilities that come with it. It’s in these struggles that I think the plot has a weak pointtowards the end of the story, Imogene is able to put a social bully, Mika, in her place with charming subversion and a mega-dose of self-confidence. I don’t think these qualities are realistic in a character like Imogene, especially the complete reversal from her desire to be liked by the same group of girls just weeks earlier.

Just the way middle school readers will respond to the story, I think they’ll respond to the art as welljust take Jamieson’s attention to her character’s hair as an example. Imogene’s hair, refuses to fully cooperate. It’s never messy, it’s never dirty, it just hunkers down in a giant wave that bobs at her chin while little bits flies up and out of her head. These details are lovingly attended to in each panel, so it’s like wherever Imogene goes so goes her hair, too. On the other hand, Mika’s hair is always glossy, prim, and neat. Yes, life is unfair, and the meanest kids were always born with the nicest hair.
On the other hand, I wish Jamieson paid more attention to the backgrounds in her panels, particular the backgrounds in Imogene’s apartment. There’s a heavy reliance on background pastel solids that get bolder with characters’ strong emotions, but there isn’t a lot of texture or detailing that makes these backgrounds feel attended to in the same way Imogene’s hair has been attended to.

Librarians and teachers should have no concerns about this title’s circulation. It needs no book-talking or marketing other than a strategic shelf placement. It’s a perfect introduction to graphic novels for those who are new to the genre, and it’s a terrific recommendation for elementary and middle school readers who want a pleasurable, accessible read.

All’s Faire in Middle School
by Victoria Jamieson
ISBN: 9780525429999
Dial, 2017
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12

  • Amy Estersohn

    | She/Her Past Reviewer

    Amy Estersohn is a seventh grade English teacher at Hommocks Middle School in Larchmont, NY and the inheritor of a large classroom library. She has always been struck by the ability of graphic novels to convey a story that transcends written language alone. That story can be for developing readers, such as the time a five-year-old saw her reading Akira on the subway and snuggled next to her, insisting he “read” along, or it can be for proficient readers who want to explore a topic in more emotional depth, such as Don Brown’s depiction of a post-Katrina New Orleans in Drowned City. She holds a BA from the University of Chicago and an MA from Columbia University’s Teachers College.

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