Susan Juby isn’t just writing YA books anymore. Or, more specifically, she isn’t just writing about Alice Macleod, a teenager living in Smithers, BC, who is trying to leave her hobbit-costume legacy behind and, with the help of her therapist, transition from homeschool into alternative school. Juby’s new publications include her memoir, Nice Recovery, which details her struggle with alcoholism, and The Woefield Poultry Collection, is more adult than young adult (even though eleven-year-old Sarah Spratt is one of the highlights of the book). And I can’t say enough about Getting the Girl, this hilarious young adult mystery novel that Juby wrote a few years ago. But whenever I think about Susan Juby, I always go back to Alice, I Think and the two books that came after (Miss Smithers and Alice Macleod, Realist at Last).
(I had a friend from Smithers, BC, who had Susan Juby come to his school to do a reading and was really excited about it, which is basically on the opposite side of this interview with, and I can’t remember who exactly, but I think it was this British tennis player, where J.K. Rowling went in to read an excerpt from Harry Potter at his elementary school or something, and he was like, “Eh, no big deal.”)
When the book starts, Alice is reflecting on the event in elementary school that drove her to be homeschooled for most of her life. She “blame[s] it all on The Hobbit,” since Alice attends school dressed in the hobbit costume that her mom made for her and meets a girl named Linda:
“So you’re a what?” she asked.
“So you’re a what?” she asked.
“I’m a hobbit. We are small and ordinary but also special. We can be sort of invisible sometimes. And we laugh like this.” I have her my deepest and fruitiest laugh.
“You know what I think?” she asked.
I shook my head.
“I think you look like an ugly boy.”
Linda leaves Alice alone on the playground, “hobbit hat in hand, burlap sack filled with extra cakes for new friends over my shoulder.” After that, Alice is homeschooled, and now, where the book begins, she is in high school, her first therapist has just suffered a meltdown, and Alice has decided to transition back into Alternative School.
Alice is such a likeable protagonist because she has a concept of normal, and she tries to stay as close as possible to that idea, but she also knows who she is and that normal isn’t really what she’s looking for. She is unique. And she overthinks everything. Juby traces these thought patterns on their unpredictable and waving paths, which actually start to make sense and become more rational than what Alice holds up as “normal.” For example, she goes out for coffee with a guy named Aubrey and she thinks,
Anyhow, I think Aubrey might be a sociopath. I mean, he is very confident for a seventeen-year-old. He wants to be a “low-fi musician,” which I think means that you don’t have to know how to play your instrument that well or be a very good singer. He said he “revels in misanthropy, but in a wholesome way.” I couldn’t help thinking about Ted Bundy. I guess that not all sociopaths are serial killers. I read somewhere that sociopathism can be very good in certain kinds of careers. And Aubrey isn’t necessarily a sociopath – I just sort of wonder why he would want to have coffee with me.
The entire time she’s on the date, and even afterwards, she’s trying to figure out just what, exactly, she’s doing. She thinks, “For a while I thought I was going to throw up. Was this a date? Was I dating? Have I headed out into the sexual marketplace? I have nothing to sell…I think I love Aubrey. I know I love my hair. I may even be a girl. The rituals of humans are very odd.”
The three books about Alice MacLeod fit into the “humor for young adults” category, and a lot of them are usually by British authors (all of the Molesworth books, and St. Trinian’s, and Adrian Mole, the ones that are around 1950s category of humor for adolescents, and then Louise Rennison and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary). And having this category sort of sink into Canada is so great, because sure, it’s always easy to read characters into other, more familiar places, but it’s kind of awesome whenever there’s a book set in Smithers, BC, so you can go, “Oh yeah, I know that town.” A few years ago The Comedy Network turned Alice, I Think into a TV show and it still runs in Canada sometimes. And if anything, the ending of the book, Alice, I Think, is reason enough for reading this series.*
* And Getting the Girl. Protagonist Sherman Mack is just as nuanced as Alice MacLeod, and just as funny.