Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Review: This Means War! by Ellen Wittlinger

The Cold War seems to be the hot topic in YA/MG lit this year. I think Deborah Wiles' Countdown has received the most attention, but there are at least two others I know of that have been published within the last few months. This Means War! is one of those.

This Means War!Juliet and Lowell have been best friends for as long as Juliet can remember, but their friendship is suddenly at risk when he starts hanging out with a pair of Air-Force-brat brothers who refuse to play with girls. Juliet befriends Patsy, who has also moved to town because of her father's job at the local military base, but her loud and brash ways are no substitute for quiet and sensitive Lowell. When the neighborhood bully worms his way into hanging out with Lowell, and the boys continue to harass Patsy and Juliet, Patsy gets fed up and declares war on the boys. Girls can do anything boys can do, and the two groups of kids (Patsy and Juliet rope in two more girls from school to even out the teams) face off in a series of challenges to prove their superiority.

As tensions escalate among the kids in the neighborhood, life is stressful for the adults as well, as we see through Juliet's eyes. Her parents run the local grocery store that is slowly losing customers to the new supermarket in town. And then of course there's the whole reason new families have been moving to the airbase: the Cold War is in full swing, and what we know as the Cuban Missile Crisis has just begun.

Poor Juliet! Her fear and tension is palpable throughout the book. She's a rather nervous child, but is quite endearing, so I was willing to overlook her nerves. All she wants is her old best friend back and doesn't understand this nonsense over boys and girls not being able to play together. Then her new friend Patsy drags her into this boys vs. girls contest while her family life is getting increasingly stressful and the threat of all-out war is hanging overhead. The nerves are rather understandable in that context, aren't they?

I imagine the boys vs. girls contest will have a lot of resonance with girls who've ever been told we're "not as good" as the boys, and I loved it when the girls decided to turn the tables on the boys and make them compete in traditionally girl-y activities. There's a little bit of gender essentialism going on there, but considering some of the girls excel in the "masculine" activities and some of the boys excel in the "feminine" activities, it's a good counterpoint to what the kids expect will happen.
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