In a high-concept approach to middle-school hierarchies, a group of unpopular eighth graders uses dog-training techniques to combat bullies.
Narrator Olivia and her friends Delia, Mandy, Phoebe and Joey are Hubert C. Frost Middle School's “Marcies”—losers. Reigning mean girl Brynne Shawnson and her cronies constantly target them with pranks and ridicule their acne, ill-fitting clothes, infected eyebrow piercing and other traits both real and invented. While helping her dog-trainer grandmother rehabilitate a grass-phobic Mexican Hairless, Olivia hatches her plan. She and her friends launch a three-stage training operation that involves distractions, rewards and ignoring negative behaviors. As the middle-school social order re-forms itself in both predictable and unpredictable ways, Olivia struggles with abandonment and shame about her mother, who has left home for a mental facility. Although the therapist Olivia sees is so ineffectual as to be off-putting rather than comic, Olivia's warm and charmingly self-deprecating narrative voice relates her feelings with a surprising and touching expressiveness. The comparison between dogs and people often feels apt, though it is occasionally carried too far—it's a bit disconcerting to hear Olivia liken her crush to a chocolate Lab, for example, and the notion that ignoring bullies' negative behavior will make them stop seems sadly optimistic.A familiar but well-executed underdog tale. (Fiction. 10-13)