And I have thoughts about it. Of course.
See, here's the thing: it was pretty good. And here's where you realize that "good" is a tricky little worm of a word, what with the way it conflates morality and quality. And that blurry little connection between the two is where I am getting muddled.
Because it was good in both ways. Really. I swear it, sort of. I mean, it's not a manual for selfless devotion or anything, but it knows the difference between good and evil. And that's not nothing.
I guess I thought it was going to be either a Revenge of the Nerds sort of fantasy, or a pure mean-girl channeling, written in praise of designer labels, spending money, and being mean.
But it wasn't exactly either of those, though both were present. It's the story of an outsider who tries to crash the cool group, and as such of course it idolizes the cool group. But it tries, too, to see the feelings at the heart of each girl's existence. Both the foolish painful yearning of the outsider, willing to drop her true friends and her own identity and pretty much everything in between in order to succumb to the power of cool, and the fearful lonely canniness of the mean girl, trying to hold onto her power, self-centered and unkind and astonishingly superficial but still, Goddamnit, human. Right?
And something about that got to me. When I heard about these books, way back when, Diana was 4 and into princesses and Chestnut was just a nutty 2-year-old. And all I heard was that this evil new series was going to make girls feel like the only thing that mattered was what they wore and how much money they had. It was the antithesis of feminism.
But it isn't so. Yes, it focuses on their wardrobes, but it's with both an interest and a heavy irony; there is a clear narrative awareness of the tininess of their world. I find, really, that I had more problem with the Disney Princesses; there was always this sense that they were entirely good, and their beautiful clothes and faces and bodies were somehow part of that. Golly, they're just so pretty with such beautiful gowns and it's not even on purpose! The Clique makes no such claims; the girls aren't virtuous, their clothes and faces and bodies are explicitly valued, it's not just a happy coincidence. They're both more honest, and more moral. I think so, anyway.
I know that Disney princesses and these books are for different ages, and that there is something to be said for creating an impossible paradigm of virtue that one can never live up to (for me it's Ma in the Little House on the Prarie books), but there's also something to be said for showing characters as flawed and morally shrunken and foolish as ourselves.
If I compare the Clique books to something that is truly loved around here, say the work of Tamora Pierce, it's true that they don't champion the one who is different—the person who is willing, despite the whole world of conformity that exerts in inexorable pressure, to break through that and be herself. And I remain intensely grateful for those books, the ones that show you another way. But it's helpful, too, to maintain empathy for those for whom it's neither possible nor desired to leave the world behind. At least I think it is.
Diana, of course, the reader in question, has her own opinion. Here is what she's had to say to me on the issue:
1) "I think Lisi Harrison is actually a really good writer. You know what? I bet she could even write fantasy books." This is, without question, her highest form of praise.
2) "Mommy, I read your blog. And you know, they're not going to twist my brain. You know that, right? They're really not going to."