CM . . .
. Volume XXIV Number 3. . . .September 22, 2017
Pop Quiz. (Orca Limelights).
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2017.
117 pp., pbk., pdf & epub, $9.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-1-4598-1222-2 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-4598-1223-9 (pdf), ISBN 978-1-4598-1224-6 (epub).
Grades 6-9 / Ages 11-14.
Review by Janet Eastwood.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
“Nice work, guys,” [the director] says. “Let’s run through it one last time, and then we’ll break for lunch.” Then he looks right at me. “Good job, Aiden. This time try to make Dane look even more lovesick when he’s staring at Penny, okay?” He makes a goofy goggle-eyed face, and we all laugh.
He turns to Anais, who plays Penny. “Don’t worry, Anais,” he says with a wink. “He’s just acting.”
She rolls her eyes and turns around to grin at me. I smile back, trying to look like I’m in on the joke. The thing is, I’m starting to wonder if my crush on Anais – ummm, I mean Penny – really is acting.
Aiden, 15, spends his summers in the fictional Cherry Lane High School where he plays Dane, a minor character in the tv show Pop Quiz. It’s a lot of work, but Aiden loves being part of the show, even if he doesn’t expect his character to ever become part of a main storyline. His biggest problem is figuring out if Dane’s crush on Penny has somehow become his real-life attraction to Anais. And then Chill Bill, the director, gives the news to Aiden, his best friend Satri, Anais, and two other actors: their characters will be more prominent next season. Aiden can’t believe his luck. He knows better than to bank on a career in acting, but for Dane to be a leading player is a dream come true…until Aiden overhears their producer tell Chill Bill that Pop Quiz has been cancelled. He hopes he has misunderstood. After nine successful seasons, how could the show just end? When the bad news is confirmed, Aiden, Satri, and Anais try to figure out ways to let the show go on. Their ideas flop; ultimately, the trio hatches a plan with beloved former stars of the show to give Pop Quiz the finale it deserves.
Pop Quiz was written with clear affection for the art of acting and for the many skills and people who are involved in bringing a tv show to audiences. Mirroring the production of a show, the story involves a great deal of set-up before the action begins: it isn’t until the end of chapter six (almost exactly half-way through the story) that the show’s cancellation is confirmed. The characters and their existing relationships – and just how much of a shift losing their roles would be – is firmly established, allowing the reader to understand their subsequent dismay.
Aiden takes a commonsense approach to his acting. He is, nevertheless, disgruntled when his parents don’t acknowledge his feelings at the news of the show’s closure. His balance of practicality and possibility echoes the text’s similar balance which relates both the unlikeliness of, and the hope for, larger roles and an acting career. The characters mention both Pop Quiz alumni who pursued acting and those who chose other careers. Seth March, for one, played “one of the most popular characters in the show’s history” (p. 17), yet when Aiden meets Seth, the former golden boy’s prospects have dried up and Seth is painfully aware of his own failings. Diana Parker, one of the current stars, is widely considered to have a good shot at broader stardom, yet she decides to cancel moving to LA in order to become a doctor. Both choices are treated with respect, and, ultimately, it is Seth, as well as Diana, who helps Aiden, Satri, and Anais turn their scheme into a viable plan. Seth is not a washed-up failure, but, like Aiden and friends, someone whose life has taken an unexpected and unwanted turn – and, again like Aiden and co., Seth is capable of shaping his present and future into something more than it seems.
Equally, and empoweringly for young readers, is the narrative respect for different media and different approaches to media and technology. Aiden and his friends, who are slightly famous for their roles in a by-now traditional form of media, television, all watch and enjoy WowKids, an online show starring, filmed by, and edited by teenagers. Aiden meets a trio of boys who, slightly famous for their videos on Instagram and Snapchat, bankroll their technology purchases through crowdfunding via those same videos. Despite his more conventional means to fame, Aiden admires these different groups’ work and innovation. Similarly, the narrative emphasizes the unseen work of the crew within Aiden’s own medium of television, the rarely seen and underappreciated labour and skills of the many people and tasks that make the show possible.
The ultimate success of Aiden and his friends is perhaps easily won but also realistic. They cannot save the show, but they can give it closure via a special, two-hour finale. This finale, which centres on the proposed demolition of Cherry Lane High School, is resolved in a way that mirrors its production: a community of alumna and present students (actors) who work together to save something that was meaningful to them.
The romance between Aiden and Anais is background and low-key. Their mutual crush is clearly present, but the real love story is that of an actor for acting and the acting community.
The story is fast-paced and hard to put down. Its biggest drawback is in the lack of diversity: the one character who is both a declared Person of Colour and appears for more than one page is Satri, who is somewhat predictably a wisecracking, food-focussed best friend with a penchant for fart and poop jokes.
Overall, Pop Quiz is an appealing, hopeful story of community and the performing arts.
Janet Eastwood is a graduate of UBC’s Master of Arts in Children’s Literature Program. She now works as an editor.
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