Alice is a misfit. Too big, too awkward, too heavy, her hair is too bushy, she's too shy and she never fits in or has friends anywhere. She's pretty sure her wealthy New York parents can't stand her, as they waste no time in shipping her off to various schools (suggested by an "educational consultant") which all end disastrously. Finally, she gets sent to The Experimental Center for Love and Learning. It's a ramshackle collection of buildings on the edge of a lake and all the kids and teachers seem as weird as Alice. Best of all, she can run off into the woods and go to the lake as often as she wants. She doesn't even mind the vegetarian/vegan food.
Then Jessica arrives. She's the kind of perfect girl who always hates girls like Alice. Even so, Alice falls for her overtures when she suddenly wants to be friends. Of course, it ends horribly with Jessica and her friends playing a nasty trick on Alice, stranding her in the lake with no clothes and then taking a picture of her covered with mud, which they then proceed to spread around the school and internet, calling her a Bigfoot.
Meanwhile, across the lake, Millie is a misfit with her clan of Bigfoots, or the Yare as they call themselves. Too small, too talkative, her fur is light-colored and her feet are small. She dreams of losing all her fur and singing on television, of joining the No-Fur world. When Millie and Alice meet, at first they seem to be the perfect friends, misfits who have finally found their place. But people are looking for the Yare and another misfit, a boy named Jeremy, is on their track.
In a final confrontation, Alice uses the cruel prank Jessica played on her to save Millie and her tribe and the school stands together in solidarity against the Bigfoot hunters, declaring that they are all freaks and this is their place for "Everyone here has something." Even the nasty Jessica, spurred on by Millie's threats, admits that she too is a freak - she has a tail and was forced to leave her last school because of the cruel bullying of her classmates.
The story ends on a cliffhanger as Jeremy apologizes for setting the hunters onto Alice and Millie, but tells them there's a secret government organization who knows about them now - and that blood tests have shown Alice is not completely human.
Reviewers so far have praised the book. Kirkus called it "an engaging tale that helps children understand both bullying and the difficulties faced by people who in some way deviate from the norm." PW said "Well-drawn characters, high comedy, and an open-ended finale will leave readers eager for the next installment."
I strongly disagree. Prepare yourselves for a Librarian Book Rant.
First, Jennifer Weiner writes one of those maddeningly patronizing introductions, saying she wrote the book because she wanted her daughters to have strong female role models and "For every Katniss or Princess in Black, there's a Harry Potter or a Percy Jackson." As a librarian, this really annoys me. A tale of Bigfoots and bullying with "cute" language like "snackles" thrown in is NOT a read-alike for Hunger Games or Percy Jackson. I can produce a great list of middle grade fantasy titles in only a few minutes (moreover, even some with diverse protagonists!). Can we use more books with strong female protagonists? Of course! Is this one? Well....I would say Not Quite.
I have a strong objection to books that make kids with differences seem like "the other" and this is exactly what this book does. Although it does avoid the Wonder trap of having a kid so vastly different that "normal" kids won't see bullying a slightly different classmate as comparable or using a child with disabilities as an "inspiration", it strongly suggests that Alice can only be happy with "her tribe." The two girls in her cabin who were willing to be friends but were put off by Alice's refusal to engage with them made a good point as well, but in the end they come together as us vs. them, the freaks vs. the normals. The final scene where all her classmates call themselves freaks was deeply disturbing to me. Their "differences" range from looking strange to not fitting into gender norms. One teacher says "How many places in the world do you think there are where I can look like this and not be laughed at?" In other words, the only safe place for people with differences is hidden away from the general population. They can never "fit in" or be happy with "normal" people. At least Wonder ends with the kids learning to accept differences in their world; The Littlest Bigfoot advocates for segregation of differences.
Finally, the privilege and disconnect from reality just drips from the book. What a sad message to send to kids who are different, that the only place they can be safe and happy is away from their families, towns, and schools. What about kids who aren't from wealthy New York families and can't afford to be sent to special schools? Millie's dreams of being a No-Fur had a disturbing racist overtone to me, rather like portraying a black child who dreams of being white. Weiner had a good idea to portray a strong female character, female friendships, and some sweet and funny magical beings, but in the end the book is disturbing and sad. There's no empowerment here, just acceptance of a world gone wrong.
Verdict: While I did read the entire book and some kids will enjoy the dramatic mean girl scenes and the cutesy depiction of the Yare, I won't be purchasing this title and can't honestly recommend it. It has inspired me to work on a read-alikes list for strong female characters though, so there's that.
ISBN: 9781481470742; Published September 2016 by Aladdin/Simon & Schuster; ARC provided by publisher at BEA