by Akemi Dawn Bowman
Stories of kids negotiating school and friend social dynamics are the bread and butter of youth literature. Adults sometimes treat such books with patronizing appreciation, as if they were pleasant fluff compared to topics of more obvious global impact. In reality, though, these books serve as both chronicle and model of some of the hugest social experiences in a young person’s life: their first volitional relationships and attempts to negotiate competing preferences and needs without adult intervention. That may sound overlofty when you’re talking about The Baby-Sitters Club, but it’s true, and those relationship skills control much of our experience in life, both child and adult. They’re also the predominant theme in Akemi Dawn Bowman’s delightful Generation Misfits.
Millie Nakakura has always been homeschooled, but at last her parents have given in to her yearning and she’s attending sixth grade as a band major at Brightside Academy and hoping to finally make in-person friends. After a rough start she finds a pal in Zuki, who shares her fanatical love of J-Pop band Generation Love, and their afterschool J-Club (misrepresented to Millie’s helicopter parents as an advanced study group) then expands to include self-possessed Ashley, popular Luna, and shy Rainbow. Millie struggles in school, since she’s unfamiliar with conventions about homework and formatting, and she’s growing to hate her flute, even though her parents plan for that to be her ticket to college and maybe life. Her real joy comes from her J-Club friends, even when mercurial Zuki shifts between demanding and quitting, or strains between Ashley and Luna (who denies her J-Club participation to her popular friends) emerge, and she’s determined to make a success out of their performance together at the school’s Pop Showcase.
Formerly homeschooled Millie’s newness to school and school dynamics is an especially clever device. It allows the book to walk her through knowledge about peer relations (“How was she ever going to make friends when there were so many guidelines she didn’t know about?”) that even schoolgoing veterans may struggle with, and it details just how complicated unspoken academic rules are (it’s news to Millie that she’s even allowed to ask a teacher for help). The abruptness of her transition also believably compresses her age-appropriate need to individuate from her parents, a hard enough task for any kid, but especially tough for Millie, whose parents have been each other’s BFF since childhood and who genuinely fail to grasp Millie’s desire for friends.
The J-Club members are all dimensionally drawn, with their own individual talents and challenges; surnames suggest Asian ancestry in several characters and Millie identifies as half-Japanese, with the exception the one member who actually lived in Japan, but J-pop is very much the club kids’ own thing rather than something passed down from family. There are small moments of didacticism (such as explanations about Ashley’s nonbinary identity and Rainbow’s being adopted) and a darker strand in a subplot about Zuki’s likely abuse at home, but those elements fit appropriately into an understanding story about youngsters just learning to negotiate complicated human relationships.
Throughout, Millie’s burning adoration for Generation Love and her exhilaration at finding people to share her devotion and fanatical knowledge have the ring of truth (and authorial experience), and the book is uncondescending and happily celebratory about the fandom experience and what it means to the kids. Never mind cool: sincerity and enthusiasm rule here in a book that believes fervently in the value and joy of friendship.
Deborah Stevenson, Editor
Cover image from Generation Misfits © 2021, reproduced by permission of Macmillan.