This post continues my exploration of recent children’s lit employing homeschooling themes with a review of the young adult fiction trilogy of Susan Juby, whose comedic heroine is Alice MacLeod, a sarcastic and disaffected teen who was homeschooled until age fifteen. The books, with their American publication date, are as follows:
Alice, I Think(HarperTempest, 2003)
Juby’s books have been a modest success in the U.S. and a hit in Canada, where they take place. In 2006 Canada’s CTV produced a television show based on the series.
Homeschooling is not a central theme of the books. It’s mostly part of the backstory explaining how Alice got to be so unique. All three of the books are told diary-style by Alice, who begins the first volume with a brief history of herself up until age fifteen.
Alice had been a precocious darling eldest daughter of a hippie earth mother and a deadbeat but good-natured (and good looking) dad. Her mother read her The Hobbit before sending her off to first grade. On the first day of first grade Alice dressed up as a hobbit and was tormented by some of the other children for being different. That was the end of her school experience.
For the next ten years Alice was homeschooled. Juby does not give us much information about this time in Alice’s life. Throughout all three volumes it is hardly even mentioned. But there are a few glimpses:
Early in her teen years Alice and her parents attended a “Home-Based Learners’ Picnic” so that Alice would have a chance to socialize with other children. Here’s how Alice, with her characteristically hyperbolic and sarcastic humor, describes the other homeschoolers:
A disturbing number of them were still breast-feeding at an age when most kids are taking up smoking. One boy wore antlers all afternoon. His sister’s eyes rolled around in her head when she sang the Appalachian folk songs her mother insisted she perform for us in preparation for her big debut on the summer folk music festival circuit. Those kids were called Fleet and Arrow, so they really never had a chance. Fleet’s parents didn’t tell her that her lotto-machine eye action looked weird because they didn’t want to damage her self-esteem.
I thought it was sort of my duty to give Fleet some honest feedback, so I told her that when she sang, she looked a bit like Linda Blair in The Exorcist, which I’d seen at my cousin’s house. That led to Fleet’s mother having to tell her about the existence of Catholicism, which made her mother so angry that she told my parents I would not be welcome at their yurt for the May Day Festival. (p.14)
But, says Alice, that was nothing compared to the religious homeschoolers, “At that same picnic one of the religious parents told my mother I was demon spawn after I told her daughter that girls were allowed to wear pants. ” (p.14)
After this experience, and the pressure her mother was getting to declare whether she was into “unschooling, deschooling, or homeschooling,” the family avoided support groups. Alice decides that the family pedagogy is in fact “self-schooling:”
Sure, my mom and dad take turns pretending to teach me. My mom specializes in giving me alternative family books in which everyone is gay, as well as environmental books like Silent Spring…. Dad takes the afternoon shift and supposedly teaches me science and math, although mostly what we do is drink coffee and read Popular Science and Omni and other books and magazines. (p.15)
At fifteen, Alice decides to go back to school. Her first days are horriffic, as her wild thrift-store outfits, social awkwardness, and first grade Hobbit past make her the target of relentless persecution from the students. Alice, I Think, is concerned largely with Alice’s fledgling attempts to venture outside the closed world of her home. She ultimately makes a friend named Georgette (George for short) and even meets a boy named Daniel (or Goose, as she calls him).
Miss Smithers, the second book in the series, picks up a few months later. To bring her readers up to date Alice again summarizes her life:
After a series of unfortunate social failures in first grade, connected to my mistaken belief that I was a hobbit, I was pulled out of school to be educated at home. Here is a recipe for becoming a total social misfit: Get run out of grade school for being delusional, then spend ten years talking to no one but your parents. Add a liberal helping of ineffective counseling. Then transfer to an alternative school in which you actually stand out as being reasonably high functioning. And presto! You have a weirdo. (p.6)
We learn in volume two that Alice lives in Smithers, British Columbia, population 5,000, and childhood home of Susan Juby. A family friend gets Alice to enter the annual Miss Smithers beauty contest. Her experiences with the contest and her failed efforts to lose her virginity (her friend George has already succeeded) are the plot lines for this volume.
Interestingly, the Miss Smithers pageant had been won the year before by the homeschooling candidate (every organization in town nominates a candidate, including the homeschooling group Alice visited in the last book). This reigning Miss Smithers is quizzed by her potential successors about her experience. Here is an excerpt from the exchange:
When one of the girls asked what being crowned queen entailed, soon-to-be-former Miss Smithers, actually crying now, sobbed, “Well, you get to leave the house quite a bit…. And if you are blessed enough to win” – her voice began to crack – “you will represent the town of Smithers” – tears welled up in her eyes and cut a swathe through her makeup as they traveled down her cheeks – “at a variety of events.” Then, for good measure, she repeated, “And you get to leave the house all the time.” With that she broke down completely.
Seeing that Miss Smithers was unable to continue, Mrs. Martin, a tidy lady in a pink sweater set, who is the official pageant chaperone, took over.
“There, there, Heather.” She patted Miss Smithers’s heaving shoulder. “It’s very emotional for the queens when they have to step down.”
“But at least I’ve got the Lord,” sobbed Miss Smithers.
“That’s right, Heather. You’ve still got God.”
Two candidates in front of me looked at each other. One whispered, “Do you go to church?’
The other replied, “I do now.” (pp.34-35)
We soon learn that this year there are not one but two homeschooled candidates, for the support group has had a schism and there now exist both the “Unschooling Collective” and the “Deschooling Association.” Both candidates are extremely shy and plain. Gradually, however, Miss Deschooling begins to experiment–first with make-up, then with nice clothes, and then, when the women organizing the event get really excited about her body measurements, with a teeny white bikini she is forced to wear during a fashion segment. The experience traumatizes her. In the end, Alice does not win the competition, but she learns many valuable lessons and begins to come out of her shell.
The final book, Alice MacLeod, Realist at Last is even more about Alice’s doomed efforts to lose her virginity, and also about her ventures into the world of employment. Homeschooling plays nearly no role in the book, though Alice does reveal an important detail as an aside at one point. She is now a senior in high school, though she’s only sixteen:
I got put ahead a year when I went back to school after being homeschooled for ten years. I guess I’m advanced in certain subjects such as English and Social Studies and Coping with Inadequate Adults. Unfortunately, getting put in with older people did nothing for my ability to fit in. It’s not like I’m socially advanced or anything. (p.49)
Repeatedly in the books Alice blames her homeschooling for her social ineptitude, but as she matures she gradually comes to see that there is a sunny side to being different. And that, of course, is the moral of these stories, just as it is for most children’s literature.
In a detailed interview, Juby reveals that the original version of Alice, I Think did not have the homeschool element. It was added later after some of her readers asked why Alice was so different and found school so awkward. She hit on the homeschooled device because, “all this time at home would account for some of the eccentricities that Alice’s gotten from her family, and it would account for public school being a really new thing.” She has found, however, that making jokes about homeschooling has had its drawbacks, “I made some perhaps not-so-smart remarks about homeschooling, and not everyone’s been amused.”
The criticism is understandable. Juby obviously didn’t know what she was talking about when she pitted the deschoolers (a term coined by Ivan Illich) against the unschoolers (a term coined by John Holt, under the influence of Illich). Deschoolers and unschoolers are pretty much the same sort of people. By the late 1990s, when Alice would have been visiting the support group, it is very unlikely that Smithers would have had a group with paganish hippies and conservative Christians, but if had, that would have been the source of schism. And of course Juby’s stereotypes of socially retarded homeschoolers aren’t likely to win her many friends among homeschoolers. Nor will her frank discussions of adolescent sex and frequent swear words endear her to most Christian homeschoolers.
Nevertheless, it is remarkable that despite her ignorance of the movement, Juby turned to homeschooling when she needed some way to explain her protagonist’s originality and intelligence. That such a move could be made so instinctively by someone with no exposure to real homeschooling says a lot about the societal impact of homeschooling. Alice MacLeod can be added to the growing roster of independent-minded and compelling fictional characters whose homeschooling helps explain how they were able to escape the numbing sameness of school-induced social conformity.