Zoey Zinevitch is an almost eleven year-old fifth grader who suffers from the condition of being not cool. She isn’t quite sure why, as she also isn’t entirely sure what makes one cool in the first place — she just knows that whatever it is, she doesn’t have it. But she has 186 days left to become cool before the 6th grade, or she knows she’ll never manage it in her life.
I hadn’t read the description of this book very well before I read it, so I was a bit surprised by the young age of the protagonist. Somehow I had been expecting her to be 13ish, so 10 was a shock. After thinking about it, though, I think 10 was the right choice; solidly pre-pubescent, the author avoids having to deal much with body issues and hormones, and can keep the narrative focused without adding extra complications.
The story takes the form of a sort of diary/journal created by the main character Zoey. Zoey feels that she is not cool, but would like to become so, and that this needs to happen before the start of sixth grade or else she’ll be permanently slotted into her current classification in the school’s social structure. (Which is probably true.) She has only the vaguest of ideas as to how this might be accomplished, however, and seems to rest most of her hopes on just magically waking up one day and finding she’s been transformed.
And this is fine by me. Because in my experience, in most stories that involve girls trying to transform themselves, the results are one or more of the following: their best friend is hurt or alienated because they’re no longer okay to associate with, they start behaving in a fashion that makes them completely miserable, they become ‘friends’ with people who really don’t care about them at all, or they make a big giant fool of themselves in the end. Zoey avoids all of these pitfalls; there were no parts of the book that were agony to get through because I wanted to strangle someone. Instead, most of the incidents are just day to day things where the reader gets to know Zoey being herself.
The incident that stuck most with me was where Zoey and Venus find themselves sitting at the Bashleys’ table and end up in a discussion about their long-term science project. During the course of the conversation, Zoey and Venus misread the situation and begin to expound upon their genuine enthusiasm for frogs. The Bashleys, arbiters of cool who seemed perhaps mildly interested beforehand, are disgusted, and Zoey and Venus are taken off guard by this abrupt rejection. Their confusion was so realistic, and I almost wished that the book would have focused more on this subject: even at over 30, I’m still not sure how the cool kids became ‘cool’ and why they were the ones who got to determine what was a popular thing to do and what wasn’t. But somehow they were, and everyone knew it.
The book seems fairly complete in and of itself, which is a big change from what I’ve been reading lately which is almost all series. I would read a Zoey sequel, but I’m not sure there needs to be one.
The quest of teens and tweens in literature to make themselves popular or their constant angsting over dates to the prom never fails to offend me, because I personally view both of those goals as a waste of anyone’s time or energy. Zoey does not quite fall into that trap, because I don’t get the impression that her vision of ‘cool’ is automatically equal to ‘popular’, nor does she seem interested in compromising herself in some way to achieve it. Though some of the incidents in the book are unlikely enough to be absurd, overall this is an excellent and not ridiculously preachy story about learning to appreciate your own quirks. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this to any elementary school aged kid.