Populazzi by Elise Allen (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99, 400 pages)
Populazzi, by Elise Allen, is a cautionary tale about climbing the social ladder at the expense of one’s true self. Specifically, the social ladder in high school, that petri dish of pain in which only the most popular kids can thrive – or so we think.
When Cara is forced to go to a new school at the start of her junior year, BFF Claudia convinces her to use the experience to test her theory that a girl can work her way up the popularity ladder by dating guys on ever-higher rungs. The goal is to supplant the reigning “Supreme Populazzi,” Trista, who is known for her (parents’) wealth, lavish parties, and the loyalty she engenders in her ladies-in-waiting.
Cara throws herself into the project, batting away the dreaded social rejects who want to be her friends, and reinventing herself with the clothes, makeup, and demeanors necessary to land the right boy at each stage of the game.
Allen, who also writes for children’s programs on the Internet, DVDs, and TV, gives nods to some of the pitfalls of adolescence, such as pot habits and bulimia; to some of the major sources of pain, such as divorced parents; and to the geeks, nerds, and other “types” who roam the halls of high schools everywhere. Absent, however, are the self-doubt and the humiliation phobia that might hobble more realistic heroines, and the disadvantages and danger that might challenge more dramatic ones. Even when Cara gets the slap down of her life, she remains perky and positive.
But this book is a romp, not an exploration of teen angst. The characters’ cartoonish quality serves to underscore the book’s message. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children’s Book Group will launch Populazzi on August 1, just in time for rising freshmen to read it before school starts in the fall. And there will be a test. Recommended.
Kimberly Caldwell Steffen
A review copy was provided by the publisher.