Review: Now I’ll Tell You Everything by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Now I’ll Tell You Everything by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2013. Currently Available.

Genre: Contemporary Realistic Fiction

20759648Face Value: There have been so many incarnations of Alice McKinley in covers over the past couple decades. And I’ll just say this: I have never read these books because I love the covers. On the spectrum of Alice covers over the years – this one is not too bad.

Does it Break the Slate? Oh, of course it does. I have loved this series, and this character, for way too long to think otherwise. And while Alice (and the series) might have frustrating moments, the overall feel is so incredibly, outstandingly, resoundingly Slatebreaking. More on this later.

Who would we give it to? Don’t read this final book if you haven’t read earlier books in the series. But you can totally still read it and love it if you’ve missed the last handful and loved the early Alice McKinley books. If you have any sort of nostalgic love for those books, you should definitely read the last one.  You should also read this great Washington Post feature on Naylor and her series. Did you know that Lois Lowry and Phyllis Reynolds Naylor once talked about doing an Alice/Anastasia crossover!?!?!? I can’t even imagine how amazing that might have been.

Review: This isn’t going to be a review, exactly. I have been thinking deeply about this final book in a series I’ve loved since childhood. So this is less of a review, and more of a homage and a series of thoughts about the varied exploits of the amazing Alice McKinley. I didn’t re-read any of the earlier books for this review, so it’s rooted in memories from reading them over the course of the past 20 years, so it might be a little bit piecemeal. But as I’ve been writing, I’ve mostly been impressed by how many details I still remember. If anyone wanted to do a full scale re-read with me, I’d totally be up for that.

The series started in 1985, with sixth grade Alice McKinley moving to Silver Spring, Maryland, searching for a mother figure, trying to make friends and figure out who she is.

This is the cover of the edition I read in fourth grade!

This is the cover of the edition I read in fourth grade!

The books get better and better as Alice enters middle school. I really think that the middle school years are the best, as Alice exemplifies all that is agonizing about this time in your life. There are so many hilarious moments, from the moment when Alice accidentally walks in on a boy in the Sears dressing room to inviting her teacher as her father’s date to a concert to the time when she is so proud of buying a “genuine Lucite” figurine for her first boyfriend only to realize that Lucite just means plastic.

I remember these covers too. I can't even believe how many different cover designs the books have had over the years.

I remember these covers too. I can’t even believe how many different cover designs the books have had over the years.

Embarrassment is an ongoing theme – I don’t even remember which book it was, but I remember Alice agonizing over whether she would ever reach an age where she stopped doing embarrassing things. I remember deeply relating to that sentiment – honestly, I still relate to it, and I’m almost 30. Because of course, the answer is, you never do, but I loved the way dealing with embarrassment is such a meaningful (and often hysterical) part of the series.

Her friends become deeply realized characters over time too. Elizabeth and Pamela become so much more than they were originally written to be. And Naylor is conscious of diversity – she adds in characters of different races and sexualities over the course of the series without being tokenistic about it. Instead she addresses racism and homophobia head on. And her family – Alice’s dad, Ben, and her brother Lester, are some of the great male Slatebreakers of all time.

As the books continued into high school, there are moments where I lost attention. There were so many dramatic things that happened to Alice and her friends. Although I know I read them all, my memory of the details of the series between 10th and 12th grade are a little bit fuzzy.

Switching from MG to YA, had to get in on the disembodied head trend of the 2000s

Switching from MG to YA, had to get in on the disembodied head trend of the 2000s

But even when the series faltered, we had this incredible character to stick with, so we did (at least I did). One of the things I loved best about Alice was her willingness to ask questions –questions about everything, silly things, emotional things, potentially embarrassing things. Questions about growing up, in particular, about becoming a woman and about sex. The books were always frank about sex, as Alice had a ton of questions about it, as most kids do. I was always impressed by how sex-positive the books were, addressing a whole range of things. Sometimes it was hilarious. In one book, Alice and her friends read the sexy parts in Arabian Nights where breasts are described as the size of pomegranates. Curious, she puts pomegranates on the grocery list, and then gets really embarrassed when her dad asks about it. Some of it is really serious, dealing with sexual abuse and rape. A lot of it just deals with wondering – what is it like to have sex, and when is the right time? But it is always written from the thoughtful, questioning perspective of our heroine and one of the best examples of developmentally appropriate sex education in a book that I have ever seen. Sex is something that is important and intriguing and exciting and weird and funny and potentially scary, and it is all those things for the characters throughout the series.

It’s not just sex though. The defining question of the series, in my reading of it, is what does it mean to grow up into a woman? Alice lost her mother at age 5, and never really knew her. She feels this acute sense of loss throughout her life, even as she has a wonderful (seriously, so wonderful) dad, a great older brother, and as she seeks out and finds mother figures in other places of her life. Her hilariously prim but well meaning Aunt Sally, her older cousin Carol, the wonderful Mrs. Plotkin, and of course, Sylvia, the English teacher who becomes her stepmom. But Alice is always searching, always wondering, if she is being a woman in the “right” way, wishing she knew the answers. Of course, the great thing of this is that in her wondering, Alice grows into an amazing woman, who never stops looking for answers.

So many re-designs. Seriously I have no memory of these illustrated covers at all.

So many re-designs. Seriously I have no memory of these illustrated covers at all.

Spoilers ahead for the final book!

In this final book we get major series resolution. Naylor doesn’t go the magical epilogue route – instead we follow Alice’s journey into adulthood, career, marriage, children, middle age, retirement. The final book starts at 18 and ends with Alice at age 60. SIXTY! I don’t know that I’ve ever seen that happen in a YA series! We get to see her through college, marriage, career, children, major things and mundane things. It’s incredibly personal, and ultimately deeply moving for someone who has loved the series for so long.

I didn’t expect that ending, and there were moments that seemed ridiculous. But as it went on I started to really like it. What an incredible opportunity to follow this character, who I started reading about when I was nine, who I followed as I grew up into middle school and high school, as she grew up into adulthood, parenthood, her career and her marriage. It’s kind of an amazing opportunity. And because it’s a whole book, not just an epilogue, there’s time for annoyance, and then dealing with that annoyance. Alice gets married really young (which annoyed me a lot, at first). But then when we see her marriage develop into a real, long-term storyline instead of just a happy ending, it gives the book time to address it as a life choice that was ultimately a good one, but had its downsides too.

I was pleased that the sex-positivity and frankness of the earlier books stays present here as Alice becomes an adult. I love that she becomes a guidance counselor, and I especially love that she fights for comprehensive sex education at her school. Clearly Alice McKinley was a Slatebreaker at age 11 and she is still a Slatebreaker as an adult.

Reviewed from library copy of Now I’ll Tell You Everything and my memories of reading the earlier books in the series. 

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