Debut author Peña offers a middle-grade tale of middle-school high jinks.
Thirteen-year-old Amanda Muse is a kind, smart girl from New York City who’s new to Colorado’s Lakewood Junior High. She makes friends easily but also has run-ins with school bully Mildred Riley. Mildred has difficulties of her own: She struggles with being bigger than most kids, and her alcoholic father is often absent from her home. Amanda’s seemingly perfect life irritates Mildred to no end, but in reality, Amanda’s mother moved the family to Colorado because her husband—Amanda’s father—had an affair. Amanda is also expected to take care of her autistic older brother, Junior. She suffers through Mildred’s torments silently, for the most part, but one day, Mildred goes too far: One of her victims reacts with violence, landing her in the hospital with severe memory loss. Due to a bizarre series of events, Amanda and her family are forced to take care of Mildred, so Amanda decides to trick her into believing that they’re friends—and she gets the entire school to play along with the ruse. Her plan is to effectively reprogram the school bully, transforming her into a nicer girl. Peña has a keen sense of drama, and the threat of Mildred’s memory returning effectively hangs over the feel-good moments that make up much of the novel. However, the story never delivers on this threat. A host of colorful characters help Mildred become the best version of herself, including Amanda’s spirited, formerly homeless friend, Bo. Mildred is also shown to benefit from staying with the churchgoing Muses. But the story glosses over the darker aspects of her overall situation, as well as the assault that sent Mildred to the hospital in the first place. This is a puzzling narrative decision, as the book has no qualms about frankly moralizing on other subjects, such as infidelity and drug use.
An unevenly executed morality tale with some dramatic moments.