Books defined my childhood. I was that kid who checked out at least 15 library books every other week, sat in my room and devoured them. I read almost everything, but there were a few novels wherein I completely lost myself in the story. These main characters (let’s be real, they were mostly girls), were the type of people that I wanted to be when I grew up. Many may have turned to fantasy novels to escape the real world, but for me, it was the Judy Blume-esque writers who depicted real girls with real problems. Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s 28-book long series about the refreshingly normal but oh-so-awkward Alice McKinley fits that bill perfectly. Reynolds recently published her last Alice book, Now I’ll Tell You Everything.
Naylor wrote her first Alice book in 1985. It is about a girl who grows up without a mother, meaning she’s extremely open with her dad and swoon-worthy brother, Lester. The first book starts with her moving to a new school in Takoma Park, Md. and trying to fit in while dealing with the typical, embarrassing, middle school moments, like opening the door to the wrong dressing room and finding her male classmate, Patrick, there. Now, 28 years later, after seeing Alice through the rest of middle school and her tumultuous high school years, Now I’ll Tell You Everything chronicles Alice’s years at the University of Maryland up until her 60th birthday party.
As a teenager, I immediately fell in love with Alice and her life because it isn’t perfect. She endures so much with her best friends, Liz, Pamela and Gwen, whether it is someone in their year at school committing suicide, a car accident or a group of friends who used to hang out by the pool simply growing apart. And who can forget Patrick, who pretty much ruined all men for me. Yet even Patrick didn’t do everything right, or else why would he have broken up with Alice for Penny?
And who can forget Alice trying to set up her amazing English teacher with her dad? What middle schooler wouldn’t want their beautiful, smart English teacher to become their mother? Crazy as it sounds, Alice pulled it off.
Growing up, I thought Alice was a little weird because of how strikingly honest she was and because of how many questions she asked about sex and relationships and just so much talk about bodies. Alice was always worried about the way she looked, but then again, so was everyone. And she taught us that it was okay to talk about it.
I had no idea until recently that these books had been banned more than any other books in the last decade. And at first, I couldn’t even imagine why. Apparently, parents across the country were shocked that Alice figured out where babies came from and that she has gay friends. It’s ridiculous because Alice herself doesn’t even have sex until the last book, when she’s in college, and it wouldn’t have been wrong if she had done so beforehand. Yet I found a website warning parents that these books made it seem like girls should be ashamed of their virginity.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The Alice series is so good because it shows that readers that they shouldn’t be ashamed of who they are at all. I didn’t even realize that living through Alice’s trials and tribulations made whatever I was going through at the time easier for me. It was the same for girls throughout the past 28 years, who wrote to Naylor and told her how much they learned from her books. I also must have learned so much from Alice’s life, especially that it was okay for me to be myself and not compare myself to everyone else (though Alice certainly does that incessantly).
Though it’s tragic that Alice lost her mother, she grew up with an extremely supportive family. They listened to her. and, every time that they answered one of Alice’s questions, they answered questions for everyone reading her books as well. Naylor alludes to this in her last book, as Alice’s daughter tells her that she started asking her questions from her entire class at school because no one would talk to them about the kind of issues that Alice did. I may not have understood the impact that this had on my life while I was reading these books, but it certainly did make me feel so much better about myself than some of the other books I was reading at the time, like Gossip Girl and The Clique series.
I have to admit that I haven’t read every single Alice book, but I feel like I grew up with her. And it’s terrifying that in a little more than 500 pages, she grew up and figured out her life. I read the entire book in two days and may have teared up so many times just because to me Alice is real, and when she’s sad, I am too.
I won’t give away any spoilers, but let’s just say I literally started squealing when Patrick re-entered Alice’s life. I sobbed when Alice had a heart-to-heart with Sylvia about love. And I think it was probably because I was imagining myself finding Patrick after all of those years and having those kinds of talks with someone in my family.
For those who have never read these books, don’t be intimidated by the number of them. It’s never too late to go back and read young adult novels. Even if you’re not in middle or high school anymore, as Alice notes, the embarrassing moments never go away. You still have to deal with heartbreak and loss. And Alice is the counselor that will get you through it all.
This series is so good because, like her favorite teacher tells her in the first book, we grow up whether we like it or not. And it’s terrifying to see Alice as a 60-year-old because it means that I’ll be there before I know it. Naylor obviously couldn’t have written three books per year for the rest of Alice’s life, which meant that her depiction of Alice in college went by way too fast, especially the part where she enters a serious relationship with a guy readers never really get to know. Luckily for Alice, she seemed to have finally figured her life out, with a few bumps along the way.
Reading it now, I was a bit frustrated by Naylor’s writing, as she literally puts everything that pops into Alice’s head on the page, which disrupts the flow of the narrative a bit. But that’s what makes these books work. They aren’t polished because her characters are real people, who don’t fit in a perfect box. They are messy and clumsy and sometimes everything doesn’t work out the way that they want them to. They grow old and lose loved ones and even get gray hair. And now that I’ve watched Alice go through that, I feel as if I am finally ready to grow up.