I have to confess from the beginning that I am particularly demanding when it comes to books written for preteens. After all, they are particularly vulnerable to the influences of their environment, be they positive or negative.
The Prank List by Anna Staniszewski made for an interesting read. The main character, Rachel Lee, is set to have an amazing summer, what with being enrolled in baking class and spending a lot of time with Evan (who might or might not be her boyfriend). Unfortunately, a cleaning business decides to expand into her town and starts stealing clients who help her mother and make ends meet. This means that Rachel and her mother might have to move out of the house they can no longer afford, which puts her on a warpath. And although in the first book of the series, Rachel had learned the danger of secrets, she chooses to go down a similar path again.
This is the story of an intelligent, hard-working young lady, respectful of her mother, and trying to do what she can to help her family survive — which includes spending a large chunk of her weekends helping her earn extra money by cleaning houses as part of her cleaning company. I found it a refreshingly different take on the preteen, a healthy one at that, and perhaps even a more realistic one. The preteens that I work with are much more similar to Rachel than the ones stereotypically painted as shopping, aimlessly lingering in malls, or hanging out just about anywhere, bored with life, and gossiping.
There is a certain childishness about the way Rachel tackles the issue. However, I felt it remained realistic because she is after all at an age defined by having one foot in childhood and one foot in adulthood. She was therefore using the tools of childhood – pranks – to deal with an issue of adulthood – making ends meet. I also liked that the character doesn’t just brush the financial difficulties off as only being her mother’s issue; nor did she crumble under the pressure of guilt from her actions. Rather, Rachel fought her conscience; it was a battle between her desire to fulfill her duty as a daughter wanting to help her mother versus wanting to fulfill her duty as being the good girl which I felt was written within the boundaries of a healthy normalcy.
I liked the underlying message of striving to figure something out. As opposed to the passive apathy that seems to be pervading so many facets of our lives, Rachel, despite the limitations imposed on her by her age, tries to do what she can to help her mother. She also displays that same balance between being on the cups of adulthood while still being under the influence of the childhood she just left behind in her relationship with her mother, both receiving much needed advice from her while sharing some insightful advice about her new, post-divorce relationship.
The Prank List is an easy read with many interesting layers that would make it a good candidate for a reading group, one that would generate eye rolls at some of the character’s antics but at the same time will generate a lot of discussion on the boundaries within which one can help one’s parents. It was well written, with only one (short) confusing section, and will be appreciated by both preteens and adults. I feel that Anna Staniszewski has a good understanding of the age group, neither romanticizing them nor demeaning them. I look forward to reading more the next books in the series and to see who Rachel grows up to become.