A Different Kind of California Dreaming

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By Jennifer L. Holm

By Gayle Forman

Gayle Forman made her mark in the publishing world with her wildly successful young adult novel “If I Stay,” which was adapted into a feature film. With “Frankie & Bug,” she takes her first swing at writing for a middle grade audience. And she knocks it out of the park.

It’s 1987, and 10-year-old Beatrice (a.k.a. “Bug”) is looking forward to spending her summer at Venice Beach in Los Angeles with her older brother, Danny. Unfortunately, Danny has no interest in babysitting Bug this summer as in years past. He wants his space. Bug’s single mom must work, so Bug resigns herself to spending the summer hanging out in her apartment building being watched by a variety of neighbors, including her mom’s best friend, Phillip, who lives on the top floor. Excitement arrives in the form of Phillip’s nephew from Ohio: 11-year-old Frankie, who has a “kitchen” haircut. At first, Bug is rather disappointed in Frankie because he doesn’t like to swim — there’s literally nothing worse in her book than not liking the beach. Also, Frankie isn’t impressed with California, which is mystifying to Bug.

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    They finally bond over their shared interest in the Midnight Marauder, a serial killer who is capturing daily headlines by terrorizing Los Angeles. They begin their own investigation, which mostly consists of keeping notes and visiting shady houses in the neighborhood. In between, they also do regular kid things like sell lemonade and roller-skate and have sleepovers. Forman is especially skillful in how she portrays the burgeoning friendship between the two children. It’s not all smiles and ice cream. Instead, Bug and Frankie’s relationship is laden with mistakes, hurt feelings and awkwardness. In short, it feels real. What begins as a disappointing summer for both children becomes so much more.

    In Forman’s capable hands, the setting of late ’80s Venice Beach is a living, breathing character. You can smell the coconut suntan lotion and hear Duran Duran playing in the background. Pizza is only a quarter a slice and Bug’s favorite ice cream stand is manned by her friend Bian, who fled Vietnam on a boat. (“Not a ship like on ‘Love Boat’ but like a rickety canoe.”) Then there are the colorful characters who populate the boardwalk: Speedo-wearing Zeus, the “good punks” with spiky haircuts and the “bad punks” who are skinheads. Forman’s frank depiction of the AIDS epidemic — something probably unknown to most young readers — is especially poignant. It’s a part of history that begs to be discussed with kids today. Forman pulls no punches when it comes to showing the harsh reality of homophobia. Phillip is hospitalized after a violent gay-bashing attack. Yet Bug’s aunt’s homophobic comments about him are more shocking for their casual cruelty. Racism is also woven into the story. Bug learns that her late father, who was Salvadoran, was shunned by her mother’s disapproving family.

    The novel doesn’t end tidily like an after-school special. Frankie reveals to Bug that he is transgender — his parents sent him to California for the summer to “get it out of my system” and return home a girl. Phillip says it best when he tells Bug: “Life is long. And people are complicated.”

    “Frankie & Bug” is a bittersweet coming-of-age story. It will linger long after you’ve finished it, like the final haunting notes of a song by the Cure playing on the radio in a cramped Datsun.

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