Give an eleven-year-old girl a video camera, sprinkle in a growing desire for fame, and you might just have a dangerous combination. In The Upside of Ordinary by Susan Lubner, the main character’s passion to create a reality show leads her to cast boring reality aside in favor of ruthlessly staged drama. Sometimes these escapades are so chaotic and selfish that I couldn’t help seeing them through the eyes of a responsible adult. Other times the story had my stomach in knots and the world around me disappeared.
Let me say upfront, individually the scenes involving Jermaine’s reality show were well written. Unfortunately, too often in the first half of The Upside of Ordinary, these scenes are so tightly strung together that they are like a dizzying array of Christmas lights whooshing past an out-of-control sled. There’s the scene where Jermaine’s sister scalds her mouth, the popcorn burns up in the microwave, her parents fight over a game of Scrabble, the cat pukes, and…. You get the picture. The story calms down when Lubner pauses to interweaves other aspects of Jermaine’s life. For example, there’s the maddening mystery about why Jermaine’s uncle leaves home. Then there’s the preparations the family makes for a pickle booth, which is an interesting process. Or there’s the borrowed ring which Jermaine loses pickling jars, which could spell trouble when her friend realizes the ring is missing and when her mom finds the ring. There are some beautifully tender moments among these subplots, making for some of my favorite parts of the book.
My other criticism of the reality show scenes is that there were times when this forty-something adult found Jermaine to be mean, mean, mean. For example, there’s the time she throws her classroom’s spider in her mom’s way, convinces her older sister to cut her friend’s hair instead of just braiding it as originally agreed, or allows a fire to burn unchecked in the family microwave. All in the name of fame. This depiction isn’t unrealistic, and there are probably people who have done worse things in the pursuit of their pursuit of stardom, but I found Jermaine too self-centered. If I were younger, I probably would be more caught up in the humor and less compelled to chastise Jermaine. Hence, my mixed reaction. It’s not that I dislike self-centered characters. After all, one of children’s literature’s most beloved characters, Ramona Quimby, is equally thoughtless. Perhaps I give Ramona more slack because she is younger, whereas Jermaine should be old enough to know better.
Now let me take a step away from Jermaine’s quest for fame and focus just on the story of a girl who gets a video camera. About fifteen years ago when I first moved away from home, I bought a video camera so that I could record the highlights of my life for my family. Initially, there’s something oddly fascinating about filming even the dullest moments. So, I related to Jermaine filming her family as they prepared dinner, swept the garage, and engaged in other mundane tasks. There’s also something strangely empowering about holding a video camera, as if it gives one the right to film anyone doing anything. So, I could also relate to Jermaine filming her sister getting out of the shower and her uncle returning to his family. Moreover, I appreciated how Jermaine might write to a producer of a reality show for tips on how to produce. I myself love to talk with authors about writing novels. Her growing desire for fame aside, Jermaine’s use of her video camera provides a wonderful example of the workings of the creative process: the way she seeks a focus for her filming activities, experiments to find the best shots, bravely seeks out subjects, and even tries to keep her potential audience in mind.
When tackling an issue, striking a balance between entertainment and commentary can be difficult. For the most part, The Upside of Ordinary succeeds in being touching and cute. So, seek it out and let me know what you think.
My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.
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