Illiteracy was a hot topic last year. That is, if you can consider two books a hot topic (which in the small world of really, really good books for children, I do). Early last year Gary Schmidt published Okay for Now which dealt with its main character's lack of reading skills, and here I discover that even earlier in the year, Joan Bauer came out with her own stunning middle grade novel about a protagonist who could not read called Close to Famous. The two books are related in others ways as well. Both narrators come from less than ideal home situations, both encounter abuse in some form, and both find relief in an artistic outlet. For Doug Swieteck it was drawing. For Foster McFee, it's baking.
Foster has always wanted to be a kid chef on the Food Network, alongside her idol, chef Sonny Kroll. No matter where her life with her mother takes her, she bakes. She bakes cookies, she bakes cakes. She makes muffins, and best of all, she makes cupcakes. Nothing heals a broken heart like a cupcake. At least, nothing else can go so far as to try. When Foster and her mother end up living in a trailer in Culpepper, West Virginia, she needs all the help she can get. Slowly Foster makes a home of her trailer and Culpepper, and starts to make friends, odd though they may be. And she continues to bake, making herself a small business out of supplying a local eatery. And when she meets the eccentric, retired movie star Miss Charleena, her life really begins to change, because here is one person ready and willing to help Foster learn to read, and not taking no for an answer.
Close to Famous is a novel that shouldn't really work, but it does. It should be too crowded with themes and characters. It's a book about illiteracy, it's a book about the death of a parent, it's a book about abuse, it's a book where everyone's got a dream, etc. You get my drift. There's a lot going on in its fast-moving 250 pages, and for any writer less skilled than Bauer, it would be a mess. But with this book, you've got an expert on your side, navigating you through the murky waters of "issues" and delivering you on the other side with what is really a book about a girl, living the best way she knows how. Foster is a tower of strength, even, and especially when, she doesn't know it. She has strength for her mother, when they have to leave their home in Memphis at the blink of an eye. She has strength for Miss Charleena when an agent calls with offers the actress doesn't want to hear. She has strength for Macon Dillard, who wants more than anything to be a documentary filmmaker, despite not owning so much as a camera phone. Foster’s strength helps her through some tough and scary times, but never fails her. She is definitely a character to be admired.
Bauer’s supporting cast is just as well defined as Foster. Miss Charleena is tough, slightly nuts and just a little bit ailing of the heart, enough to make her human behind her movie star façade. Macon is determined and passionate and about the “little people” he wants to help with his documentaries. Even Angry Wayne, who buys and sells Foster’s baked goods, has his soft side, though it needs prodding to be seen. My one quibble is with the villain of the piece, Huck, who is rather one-dimensionally nasty, but then again, some people are just lemons and that’s that. But I would have liked to see his character fleshed out a bit more.
A side note: The issue of illiteracy also makes an appearance in Steven Arntson’s The Wikkeling, which is not quite as successful as Okay for Now and Close to Famous.
a funny note: when writing this review I found myself constantly typing "famouse". I've been reading too much Geronimo Stilton!
Close to Famous by Joan Bauer
2011, Penguin Group
2011, Penguin Group