Nice and Mean by Jessica Leader 2010
AladdinM!X/ Simon & Schuster
IQ "Oh, I remember. Every few years something Indian becomes cool, and then people forget about it. '[Priyanka]
'I know!' I cried. 'I want to say to them, 'Wait! I was cool last year' [Sachi]
'Hello?' said Priyanka, with a hint of Nani's accent that made me giggle. 'Have you forgotten about us over here, on the other side of the globe?'" pg. 203-204
Sachi is nice. Marina is mean. The two are forced to work together and make a video for Video class. Marina looks down on Sachi because Sachi is not popular; she doesn't have a lot of money, she's shy and she's too nice. Sachi is somewhat afraid of Marina because Marina is rich, loud and rude. These two seventh graders are going to have to work out their problems if they want to get a good grade in Video.
Nice and Mean is interesting in that it shows from a middle grade perspective the downside of being nice all the time and why sometimes it can be good to be a little mean (but just a little! Don't go overboard, haha). Even though Marina can act rudely towards other people, no one ever tries to take advantage of her, she's strong and that's a good thing. At the same time, even her closest friends are afraid of her and she hides her real feelings from her friends which hinders their friendship. You're supposed to be able to be completely honest with your best friends. As the two main character, Sachi and Marina are well developed. There are cracks in Marina's armor of uncaring and toughness and Sachi doesn't want to be the nice girl all the time, she wants to be somewhat popular. I do wish that Marina's friends had been better developed, we only saw one side of their personality, they were either nice (Elizabeth) or mean (Rachel). Sachi's sister Priyanka is not just there to be the annoying older sister, she has her own hopes and reams and is under a lot of pressure too, I enjoyed watching her relationship with Sachi grow again.
Sachi wants to know how someone or something becomes popular. The question about who decides what is popular has no real answer and the author demonstrates this through the words and actions of the students at Marina and Sachi's school. While the message of being comfortable with yourself and not worrying about popularity is a good one, I'm not so sure middle school and even some high school students would buy it. They may agree with the idea, but in the end, I think that some (not all) students will dismiss this notion and continue to focus on popularity. My hope is that I'm wrong and that with more books like Nice and Mean being written with similar messages, kids will be encouraged to just be their own unique self and not worry about having everyone like them (because that will never happen). I picked the Incredible Quote above because it illustrates an amusing but honest conversation that Sachi and Priyanka have. It's about how every few years or so, Indian culture becomes popular (bhangra music, people start wearing variations of saris, etc.) and then interest dies out. I thought this was an interesting point that was brought up and I enjoyed reading about Sachi exploring the topic. Fashion trends can change, but it's not right that every couple of years one culture or another becomes "in" and then later on, it's "out."
Nice and Mean is a cute read that had me remembering my own middle school years (which was only about 2-3 years ago, haha) and had more depth than I expected. I think this book will really appeal to its targeted audience, older readers will think it's cute but they may grow frustrated at Sachi's passive voice or Marina's unchecked bullying. Middle school readers will be able to better relate and the subtle message incorporated into the novel about being assertive is one that all middle school aged students should keep in mind as they prepare for high school. The message about popularity is predictable and not as subtle. Towards the end it becomes quite clear what the message is since it is said over and over. I was also really pleased at the diversity in this novel. It's not forced, it all seems natural. Not only is Sachi Indian American but one of Marina's best friends is half Chinese and there are Latino and African American characters sprinkled throughout the novel. Schools are getting more and more diverse and I was really happy to see that Ms. Leader recognized that and included it. My automatic assumption would have been that all Marina's friends and their boyfriends/crushes were white, but they weren't. Marina's bullying humor, along with her horror of having to work with Sachi (and vice versa) all make for a pleasant and amusing read.
Disclosure: Received from the author as part of her blog tour. Check out our mini interivew!
PS The Aladdin M!X books are very cool. The summary of the book is on the last page and the author bio is on the front page. It's different and I like it. Plus the cover is very cute (Marina writes in a little black book about things she loves/hates).