Another Dani Mackall winner. Very gritty, much like a 4th grade version of Todd Solandz’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse” (1996). Somebody has already mentioned the “To Kill A Mockingbird” parallels so I am confident that I was not the only one to immediately form a mental image of Mary Badham.
Laney Grafton is the ten-year-old narrator of the story, which she claims (at the beginning) is not about her but about the title character, a 300-pound girl who has just joined Laney’s 4th grade class. The story soon begins to contradict Laney’s early claim and by the end the reader realizes that it is really Laney’s coming-of-age story, with Lara serving an allegorical purpose.
There are some moments of especially profound insights such as when Laney discusses everyone’s laughter the first time Lara is insulted: “Theresa laughed. She’s kind of chubby, and I got the feeling she wasn’t entirely against the idea of having someone in class who made her look skinny. I got to admit that I laughed too. But it wasn’t a real laugh, and I guess that makes it worse”. This assessment (or confession) says all that needs to by said about Laney’s and Teresa’s positions in the classroom dynamic, occupying that large middle ground between the bullies and the main victim; feeling a sort of guilty relief that someone else is drawing the majority of the cruelty and abuse.
Mackall does a good job of steering clear of the standard child’s book formula, which would have made it mandatory that Laney became good friends with Lara (she doesn’t). And Mackall structures the chapters in such a way that Laney gives young readers instruction on story elements and the pitfalls that a young writer should avoid. While you would not wish to see this device in widespread use, it is quite instructive and its very uniqueness keeps it from becoming tiresome.
There are occasions when Mackall gets a little condescending in style, as she tries to convince the reader that the book was written by a child, but these probably seem less lame to someone in the book’s target audience.