by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
The Agony of Alice has spawned 18 sequels (the latest to be released next year) and 3 prequels. My daughter Vicki and I have been reading the books together. Both of us love them. Alice, her father and brother Lester, her best friends Pamela and Elizabeth, her first boyfriend Patrick, her sixth-grade teacher Mrs. Plotkin, her seventh-grade English teacher Miss Summers (who eventually marries her father), and others in the series seem like real people. They face real-life dilemmas and deal with them honestly. They are a great way to stimulate dialogue between mothers and daughters. They are a kind of “how-to” manual for growing up because of the wide range of issues dealt with in the various books.
The American Library Association reports that this series is one of the “most challenged”, surpassing even Harry Potter in 2003 in complaints, due to the “sexual content” of the books. Actually, the sexual content is one of the things I like most about the books, as it stimulates a lot of conversations with my daughter as we follow Alice through adolescence. By the way, “sexual content” may be somewhat of an overstatement–we are currently reading Patiently Alice, which deals with the summer between 9th and 10th grades, and there has been no explicit mention of anyone having sex! But Alice and her friends (especially Pamela) wonder about sex a lot, and if I remember correctly, so did I when I was their age, and I would have appreciated a series such as this one that answered all my questions!
We enjoy the books because they are laugh-out-loud funny. Lester always adds comic relief, and Alice herself describes her frequent blunders and faux-pas in such a forthright way that a reader cannot help laughing.
Naylor does not shy away from the hard issues of racism, bullying, death, depression, abuse, suicide, and more, yet the tone of the books is unfailingly optimistic and good-humored, as Alice picks her way through the minefield of adolescence with the unfailing support of her family, friends, and teachers.
For me, the biggest mystery is why the series is not more popular, especially in this area, since the books have a lot of local color. Alice shops at Wheaton Plaza, her father manages the Melody Inn, a music store in Silver Spring modeled after Dale Music, and Lester is a student at the University of Maryland. Yet when we visit our local library or bookstores, I find only a few of the series on the shelves. Can it be that they can’t keep them in stock?
Because the books deal unflinchingly with the issues facing a girl in public school in the U.S., they might also be of interest to adult learners of English. The language is not particularly difficult.