________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 19 . . . . May 16, 2008


Not Fair, Clare. (The Clare Series, Book Two).

Yvonne Prinz.
Vancouver, BC: Raincoast Books, 2008.
197 pp., pbk., $10.95.
ISBN 978-1-55192-984-2.

Subject Headings:
Teenage girls-Juvenile fiction.
Popularity-Juvenile fiction.
Best friends-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 6-8 / Ages 11-13.

Review by Janet Grafton.

*** /4


When I finally spot Allison, I could kiss her. She looks like a scruffier version of me. She's wearing a camouflage tank top, cargo pants, and Birkenstocks. Her long brown hair is pulled back with a faded blue bandana, and her signature army-surplus bookbag is slung over her shoulder. I call out to her and she looks relieved to see me. She laughs and looks around, shrugging. I pull my bike up next to hers. She gives my outfit the once-over, too.

"I hope you brought something else to wear for the swimsuit competition," she says. 

I point to my backpack. "Naturally. And my tiara's in there, too." We both laugh and I am utterly grateful for the fact that Allison, my new best friend, is standing right next to me, making fun of the kids who never let me quietly be who I am. 

I lock our bikes to the bike stand with my lock, and we make our way back through the crowd, catching snippets of conversation. "Her parents caught her in the sauna with . . . ," "He drank so much he . . . ," "She broke up with. . . ," " "He's grounded for . . . ." I try to ignore them, but I'm amazed at the stuff I'm hearing. My summer is starting to sound like two months at Camp Sunshine for Prudish Girls compared to theirs.


Book Two of Prinz's "Clare" series sees 13-year-old Clare beginning grade eight. Her best friend Allison, whom she met at summer track camp, has switched to Clare's school, and Clare feels poised for a successful year. But her longtime nemesis, Ginny Germain, with the inexplicable popularity that is granted mean girls, is poised to convert Allison to her horde. Allison is friendly and without bias towards Ginny, despite Clare's warnings, which leaves Clare feeling vulnerable.  In this state, her long-time imaginary friend Elsa resurfaces. Clare has been trying to emancipate herself from Elsa for some time, feeling that not only is she too old for an imaginary friend, but depending too much on Elsa is keeping her from making real friends. But in times of trouble, Elsa still fills a place in Clare's life: she listens, and in this instance, advises Clare that she audition for the part of Lady Macbeth in the school play. Elsa knows that Allison must come to her own realization about Ginny and that Clare needs a focus in the meantime. In drama class, Clare finds new confidence and passion and an outlet for her imagination. Instead of losing herself in an imaginary friend, she is able to lose herself by being part of a drama that is symbolically similar, but safely disconnected, from any drama in her life. Engaging with Macbeth grants her an understanding of human nature, specifically Ginny's, and the chance to explore and reinvent herself in a creative setting. Clare's Aunt Rusty also gives her some good advice: if you're unhappy, step outside yourself. Clare takes these words to heart, befriending the difficult, sometimes-charming neighbour girl, Patience, and throwing herself into the part of Lady Macbeth. Eventually, Allison's drama with Ginny plays itself out, and she and Clare get back to being solid friends. Both girls extend their friendship to Patience, and Clare's world further expands with the relationships she forms within the school theatre circle. 

     There is a glut of cute, trendy writing in the world of Young Adult and children's literature these days. And so it was with a threefold caution that I approached Not Fair, Clare: the title rhymes, it is a series book, and there are faux-cartoon girls on the cover. Reading Prinz's second novel both confirmed, and allayed, my fears.  The "Clare" series is cute and trendy, but it is also more. 

     Prinz's use of humour, while not as sophisticated or finely timed as Susan Juby's in the "Alice" series, inspires the same brand of laughter, one which is born of a self-aware outsider navigating the messy adolescent years. In her first book, Still There, Clare, Prinz's writing is sometimes blocky and mired in dead-end detail, but in this second book, her style is tighter and better edited, and Clare's narration is mostly swift and engaging.

     Prinz captures a very particular time in an average adolescent life, evoking junior high social dynamics through genuine details of school life. After presenting a collage that symbolizes the influences in her life, Clare narrates:

Everyone claps the way junior-high kids are expected to clap, without any enthusiasm, but I can tell by the way their eyes follow me back to my seat that they think I'm more interesting today than I was on Monday.

     Prinz's depiction of Clare's exploration of identity is especially strong. Through letters to Elsa, and her engagement with various drama class exercises, Clare is naturally concerned with this central aspect of growing up. And while the story is told in a standard linear format, Clare's first-person voice is multifaceted and allows for creative variation and asides, as seen in her notes and letters to various people in her life.

     Prinz constructs Clare as an everygirl in a contemporary everytown. There is one Canadian identifier, when Clare mentions she's glad Thanksgiving falls before Halloween, but otherwise, this story takes place in an average middle-class setting. There is an all-round lack of diversity in the story which accentuates a problematic scene in which Clare and her aunt visit an Indian restaurant. Especially considering that this is the only mention of any culture other than the assumed white North American culture, Prinz's overemphasis on the "mysterious," "strange," and "secret" aspects of this "foreign" place is disconcerting.

     The book's strength lies in the fleshed-out portrayal of Clare's friendship with Allison which is well developed and believable. Comparatively, her relationships with Patience and Simon are less so. It is implied that Patience has an endearing side to her nature that helps Clare befriend her, but for a teenage girl to willingly spend time with such a difficult child is a stretch. As for Simon, it is with him that Clare shares her first kiss, but there is almost no follow through on this event. Arguably, this is the privilege of a series where there is the possibility of resolution in a later book.

     Clare is a likeable enough character to warrant a series in her name. She has both a level head and a vulnerability that endears her to readers. She is an outsider, but not desperately so. Most noteworthy are her survival tactics, namely, the creation of Elsa. Prinz incorporates the concept of an imaginary friend with surprising credibility. Elsa keeps Clare in check, tames her ego, listens, offers creative coping tips, and essentially cheers Clare on. For teenagers experiencing loneliness, isolation, and self-doubt, such a personal, creative means of coping is heartening. 

     In terms of literary merit, Not Fair, Clare, is not a challenging book. However, Prinz kicks things up a notch with the integration of quotations from Macbeth which lend her text a literary sophistication missing in the first Clare book. But the story remains accessible to preteen and teenage readers. First kisses, boys, and bras are in the forefront of the Clare and Allison's minds. Thankfully, they have other interests, too, like Japanese manga and old Woody Allan films. All in all, Not Fair, Clare is a wholesome antidote to the current "Gossip Girl" trends, and the lead girls in Prinz's book seem to be growing up at an ideal pace. 

     There is no great dramatic build-up between the protagonist/antagonist in this story. Instead, there is steady tension and action to keep the reader interested. Prinz's second Clare book stands alone, but, as with any portion of a series, it reads better when paired with its predecessor.

     Not Fair, Clare serves as a pleasant comfort read, being sweet, but not saccharine, and light, but not empty.


Janet Grafton is a graduate student in the Master of Arts in Children's Literature program at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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ISSN 1201-9364
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