Why It's a Good Idea Not to Reread the 80's Christian YA Fiction from Your Childhood

New Girl in Town - Judy Baer

Alexis “Lexi” Leighton is new in town. She used to live in Grover’s Point. Now she lives in Cedar River. She lives with her *REDACTED* brother, her mom, and her dad. She doesn’t know anyone. Lexi is lonely. The musical keeps her busy during the summer. The Hi-Fives is a club of the most popular girls in town. Jennifer joined the Hi-Fives. Should Lexi join the Hi-Fives or will she be compromising her quirky, individual spunkiness? Jerry is cute, but Todd is cuter and owns a ’49 coupe and likes her quirky, vintage costume jewelry necklace. But does Todd like her?

Appropriate questions to ask:

1) What the hell is this?
2) Who the hell writes this badly?
3) Why the hell is Crystal reading this?

My answers:

1) This is a late 80’s/early 90’s Christian Young Adult novel. 
2) Apparently, this writing is acceptable for 16 year olds (or the 12/13 year-old I was).
3) Are you prepared for a long story?

The Background:

Once upon a time, there was a church library. This church library gave out gold coins to kids who would checked out books, coins which could then be used to purchase things. Being an avid reader, this was like hitting the lottery – being paid to read!

But I was also a teenager at the time (about 13). So I didn’t want to read the kid’s books – I wanted young adult. And THIS is pretty much all they had.
I remember the church lady being SO ENTHUSIASTIC about how mainstream this series was, how awesome it was to have a “good influence” that the secular kids could read and then learn about Christ and be saved. And you know what?
I HATED THESE.

Back in the day, being a good proper Christian girl, I HATED THESE with a passion. I hated the goody-goody Lexi who never really had problems of her own, but solved everyone else’s problems. I hated how I couldn’t relate one twit to her life from her brother, to her family, to her school, to her friends, to her boyfriend. I hated how she had to drag or manhandle God into EVERY PROBLEM.

But I wanted the coins. So I read them.

Fast forward many, MANY years. I noticed that a friend, Anne, was commenting on a review for Sierra Jensen, another series I read and, well, despised (for pretty much the same reasons I hated Lexi – goody-goody with a perfect life, where some bad stuff happens to other people that God fixes, oh, and Sierra couldn’t kiss a boy because that would tarnish her purity). We got to talking about these books when I opened the can of worms and asked if Carmen had ever read Cedar River Daydreams.

And thus a Buddy Reads was born!

A big, hearty Kudos to the AMAZING Carmen, who read this with me. Girl, you deserve a MEDAL for this! I OWE YOU ONE!

The Review:

Time changes a person, so I was not quite sure what to anticipate when this book came through the Interlibrary Loan. It was only 141 pages! I mean – WOW! Most young adult contemporary books these days are like 300 pages! The cover is so 80’s cheesetastic, trying so hard to be Sweet Valley High for the Religiously Inclined. And more charmingly, inside the cover was a line of library due date stamps (ahhhh, the memories!).

Before I get to the full-on riffing of this THING masquerading as a book, I want to do due diligence and give some compliments:

1. The book is surprisingly encouraging to women to be “who they are”. Quotes like "Just be who you are, Lexi, and people won't be able to resist” and "You said I shouldn't want to be just like everyone else, that I should be myself” are really incredible because so much Christian fiction is about being THIS TYPE of woman. Also, Todd’s MOM is a bigwig at a company – something you don’t see very often in Christian fiction, young adult or otherwise!
2. Teenaged dating relationships are treated really well. Lexi has feelings for Todd and not ONCE is she ashamed of crushing on him. Also, both Lexi and Todd date other people before each other and not once do we get something about “losing pieces of their heart” or virginal shame because Lexi is attracted to Todd.
3. Lexi has two girlfriends, and while both girls think Todd is cute, they aren’t fighting over Todd’s attention.
4. The book attempts to detail what it’s like to have a family member with a mental disability. It fails miserably, but it’s trying???
But I think I need to stop right there, because even those compliments are really more than this book deserves.

No, what REALLY surprised me was what I found inside. Inside this book is one of the most god-awful, embarrassing crappy novels I have ever read.
The first thing that hit me is the absolutely atrocious writing. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel with this crappy of writing:

"Lexi's sandal-shod feet followed his strong lead."
"No one would have dared ask this of her back home. They all know about her beliefs, her, values her faith."



Besides floating body parts and Epic Grammar Fails, just the writing in general is terrible. I have NEVER read a young adult novel with such insultingly awful writing. I honestly at a loss for words to describe how awful it is! Juvenile, simplistic, the barest of bones you could write with almost no description whatsoever…it’s just INSULTING to read this and think that someone thought this was “good enough” for 16 year olds to read (I am assuming 16 because that’s the age of Lexi, though I read this at 12/13)!
Aside from the writing, everything about this book is artless, simple, bland, without a shred of subtlety or complexity, hinged together by deus ex machina and author contrivances and convenient “plot twists”. It’s obvious from the first mention who Ben’s Little League coach will be; likewise, there is no subtlety in Jerry, the d!ck; Minda the Mean Girl; and Todd, the good Christian boy. Plot events happen (missing dress) but if you have been paying even a modicum of attention, you can figure out what happens. Also, in one of the most contrived scenes, Lexi meets Peggy, a neighborhood girl that pops into the picture in the last 20 pages to be her carbon copy friend, ready to bolster Lexi’s enormous ego. Where was she 50 pages ago? Oh, on vacation.

And there is absolutely NO consistency in this book:

+ Lexi will whinge to her mom about being lonely – and then say things a couple pages later like, “She didn’t think her mother had had time to notice her lately” or Mom will ask, “Why are you so unhappy?”
+ Mrs. Waverly goes from being just the teacher of Lexi’s musical to being a confidant to being a member of Lexi’s church all in a matter of pages.
+ Lexi is supposed to be Christian, but we’ve never ONCE seen Lexi attend church!
+ Lexi complains that Jennifer and the Hi-Five girls only talk about boys – but really, does Lexi talk about anything BUT Todd and Jerry, verbally or mentally?
+ Lexi asks her mom about the Hi-Five Club and her mom answers, “It’s been the number-one topic of conversation for days” – really? I didn’t read any of these conversations!
+ One moment, “It was amazing how little the other voices were missed” when the Hi-Five girls leave the musical. The next minute, it’s like “There weren’t that many strong female voices left in the group”.
+ Lexi hangs out at the mall with the Hi-Five girls on Saturday. Practice is on Monday. And yet, on Saturday, Lexi talks about rehearsals “tomorrow”. Did we skip Sunday??
+ Lexi is given “strict instructions to keep an eye on” Ben, after her fiasco of losing him at the mall. So what does she do? She starts perusing a clearance rack, keeping “one eye and one ear tuned to [him]”.
+ Lexi supposedly sews and makes “funky clothes”, but she goes to the mall NUMEROUS times to buy clothes!
And these are just a FEW of the instances I found! It’s like Baer drummed out all this in an afternoon and didn’t bother to reread or edit or add any details AT ALL.

Before I get ANY further, let’s just stop here and talk about Down’s Syndrome, Lexi’s brother, Ben, and the word “retarded” (henceforth known as the r-word, because I already feel enough like a tool for rewriting it numerous times in my status updates), because I really can’t go much further into this review without addressing this HUGE concern. Was it acceptable in 1988 to call people with Down’s Syndrome the “r-word”? I am too young to recall, but I coulda SWORN that using the r-word when referencing a person was wrong, even then!
Well, if the usage of the r-word bugs you, you will need to avoid this book like the plague. Because it is EVERYWHERE. And not just the bad guys say it – which MAY have made it acceptable. Nope, Lexi, her mom, Todd – the “good guys” – call Ben the r-word too! Lexi just blurts it out to a girl she barely knows! And sometimes when he is RIGHT THERE in the room! Right AFTER they rail on another girl for calling him the r-word! Again with the consistency!
To make this EVEN WORSE (yes, it gets worse!!), there’s this pervasive sense that being mentally disabled is “weird” and “disgusting”, that Ben is a “mistake” and “flawed” – even among Lexi!

“Since we moved to Cedar river, it's been like a curse to have a *REDACTED* brother. Why did God pick my family? Why Ben?"



I don’t begrudge Lexi sometimes being upset about her sibling. I get that; I’ve felt it. And Lexi partially has an excuse – she moved from a place where she never had to encounter prejudice for having a mentally challenged brother to one where apparently people with Down’s Syndrome don’t exist (weird, as Cedar River is supposed to be a city much bigger than her old home town) so she gets teased and ridiculed for it. So I get that sometimes she might be like, “Why me?! Why did I get stuck with Ben? Why did God do this to me? Am I being punished?”

But never ONCE is this reconciled. I mean, yes, the text TRIES to say, “Hey, God didn’t give this as a punishment” and that he wasn’t born to make people feel good about being healthy, but it rings hollow after reading dozens of pages of Lexi bemoaning having a brother with Down’s Syndrome, as if it is like having the plague. We are left with the impression that Ben “was so perfect – and yet so flawed” (WTF does that even mean?!?!), we are left with the impression that Ben is a mistake (or at least his genes are!), we are left with this weird thing where Ben isn’t a person – he’s a problem. He’s a problem that Lexi must surmount, an obstacle to joining the Hi-Fives, someone to get out of the house. He’s not a person, who loves Transformers. He’s not a little boy, trying to understand the world. He’s not someone learning to play Little League. He’s something for the other characters to overcome. 
While we’re talking about this, let’s also talk about victim-blaming/domestic violence. Because yeah, this book goes there too.

At one point, Lexi is applauded for standing up to the Hi-Fives (good). But the problem comes when Mrs. Waverly says this of Jennifer, the Hi-Five girl who told her about the incident, and why Jennifer doesn’t leave the Hi-Five girls:

"She isn't brave like you."



NO NO NO NO NO!!! This is SO WRONG.

You may have heard of Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens and the recent discovery of video footage of him knocking around his then-fiancée in an elevator. One of the reasons that his lawyers are using to get the domestic violence charges on Ray Rice dropped is that Janay stayed with him and even married him – so it must not have been that bad right?

Or maybe Mrs. Waverly would say: “She isn’t brave like you”?

This is absolutely the wrong way to treat this situation. Jennifer is like many individuals trapped in a harmful environment. It has nothing to do with “how bad” the situation is or “how brave” a person is. This feeling undermines ALL the people stuck in these relationships, stuck there because of love, a need for acceptance, and fear of the unknown or being alone.

What I also hate about this is how it bolsters Lexi’s ego at the expense of someone else. Instead of Mrs. Waverly just leaving it at admiring Lexi’s bravery and then saying something profound like, “It’s really tough to defy peer pressure; we should help support Jennifer and be good friends to her so she doesn't feel like she needs to put up with the Hi-Fives”, it’s instead “Lexi is awesome; Jennifer is a wimp.”

Not very Christ-like, not in my book!

The characters make cardboard look 3 dimensional. Like I mentioned above, characters are obvious, artless, unsubtle, and crude. Mrs. Leighton has to win the award for Most Laid-Back Mom ever – she doesn’t scold Lexi at all for losing Ben at the mall. I appreciate that Mrs. Leighton (ALWAYS Mrs. Leighton or Marilyn, NEVER “Mom”) was trying to calm Lexi down, but why didn’t Mrs. Leighton speak to either Ben or Lexi? Explain to Ben, “Hey, you scared your sister – you need to stick close to her so she doesn’t worry and we don’t lose you!” or scold Lexi not paying attention to Ben? She also has the weirdest logic; when Lexi expresses hatred at Minda for Minda calling her brother the r-word, Marilyn Leighton counters, "Returning her anger won't accomplish anything, Lexi. Remember what the Bible says about forgiveness." Sooooooo, a girl calling YOUR SON the r-word, making him cry – you are just supposed to shrug it off and not even talk to the girl’s parents?

Lexi herself is just the weirdest protagonist ever. I don’t even rightfully know what to think of her. Part of me would like to punch her, for whining about her picture perfect life and moving and all the other trivial problems she had. She was gorgeous, blonde-haired, skinny (size 5? I WISH!), and caught the attention of the popular girls AND two hot guys. At the end, everyone who is a good person loves her; she has a boyfriend; she has TWO girlfriends; her parents love her; her brother is enamored of her. Oh, AND she had a main part in the musical – Mary Sue, much?

I’ve talked about Ben, so I won’t reiterate anything here. Though I will say this: Where the hell is Mr. Leighton? I get that he’s busy with his job, but he has like ONE LINE and TWO SMALL SCENES in the entire book!

While Jerry is the obvious Jerkwad/Jerkoff, neither of the boys know how to keep their hands to themselves, and both remain the center of the universe in all the girls’ minds. On her first date with Jerry, "He appraised her looks with a practiced eye...he lifted a finger and ran it across the rhinestone pin." Last I checked, pins typically were affixed around the neck/bosom which means Jerry is basically copping a feel!! But Todd is no better – "He chucked her gently under the chin with his knuckles” like a creepy uncle and proceeds to “[touch] the silver locket she wore on the chain around her neck”! All the girls talk about them – even Lexi, who strangely gets upset a couple of times when the Hi-Five girls talk “so much” about boys (which, like I said above, is weird, because she is CONSTANTLY thinking about Todd). At one point, she isn’t even dating Todd, but "She wanted Todd to share every part of her life”!!

Todd may be the “proper choice”, but I still think he’s a d!ck. He takes credit for Lexi sounding good in the duet: "You know, this might sound conceited, but I think I bring out the best in you." Uh, d!ck, that IS conceited and I don’t need you to sound amazing! (Lexi says something about the reverse and Todd admits that maybe it’s a little of both – still not backing down on his claim!!)

Later on, after Lexi has a confrontation with Jerry, he demands, "I think you'd better explain what's been going on” – and again, Todd and Lexi are NOT even dating!! He assumes Lexi is his girlfriend without even asking her and THEN gets upset and rails on her for not telling him about Ben. Uh, buddy – it is LEXI’S decision to tell you about her family; not your right to know it.

The Hi-Fives are supposed to be zombie robots, but really, as Bad Popular Girls go, they aren’t THAT bad. They drop out of the musical, but that’s AFTER the musical gets extended two more weeks, and given they are just kids, that this is JUST a VOLUNTARY musical, I could understand maybe bowing out due to family obligations or because of their parents (they DO have to answer to parents, after all!). The Hi-Fives are also bad because they 1) try on shoes they have no intention on buying (???), 2) giggle about boys (wait, doesn’t Lexi…?), and 3) Minda steals 75 cents. Yes, this is bad form – I 100% believe in tipping your server and not being cheap about it. BUT it was 75 cents! Lexi acts as if Minda did something terrible, like murder or arson or perhaps Watergate. But, when you are in a Christian Fiction novel, you can’t show the popular girls doing things like drinking alcohol, smoking pot, and having sex. So things like stealing 75 cents become a showstopper.

Towards the latter half of the book, Minda becomes the singular Mean Girl. She is bad because Daddy hits her and Mommy is a drunk – poor rich girl! Actually, Minda is probably the ONLY character I cared about; I feel that a novel about HER would have been a 1000% improvement. (Knowing what I do how the series continues with her just makes me sad…)

Last, but not least, this book does NOT age well. For instance, while Lexi may not have known “many teenagers who liked anything old”, I’ve seen loads of teenagers hop on the hipster/vintage bandwagon. It’s also amusing that the height of Lexi’s fashion includes blue handmade jumpsuits, white shorts and a rainbow striped shirt (?!), and this outfit:

"The pale pink jeans and cotton sweater had been her birthday gift. She's chosen to go conservative tonight, rather than one of the funky outfits she usually wore. Even her jewelry - a tiny rhinestone brooch - was more subdude than usual."



The Reflection:

Now that I’ve nearly written a novella the size of “New Girl in Town” (it is on the eighth page in my Word document and the first revision was so long, it didn’t fit in the Goodreads review space!) and probably bored you to tears (though I hope I occasionally made you laugh), it’s time to reflect on my venture.

“New Girl in Town” is nowhere near as caustic as many other Christian fiction for young adults. Lexi is never once told to “mind her place” and follow some arbitrary form of Christian femininity, and she has a sex drive and goes on dates with TWO boys, both of whom she finds physically attractive. She isn’t slut-shamed for this behavior. AND, as an improvement on more recent, secular young adult novels, she has two female friends, neither of whom are competition for Todd’s affections. (Actually, there are LOADS of women in this book, and really no romantic plot triangles.) I certainly did NOT expect that when I reread this book.

But, what irritated me as a young girl doesn’t irritate me quite the same way. Lexi annoys me, not because she’s a whiny goody-two-shoes, but she’s a badly written whiny goody-two-shoes. The whole THING is badly written, sloppily done, as if it doesn’t matter about the quality of the novel, just that it got written and published and in print as fast as possible. But the treatment of the mentally disabled, the approach to domestic violence is astoundingly awful and downright insulting. And for this reason (and that I believe young adult deserve GOOD QUALITY fiction), I would NEVER recommend this for anyone – not for an adult, and certainly not for a young, impressionable teenager.