As a huge fan of the original Jessica Darling series, or, at least, as huge of a fan as one can be while intentionally deciding not to finish said series, I was super curious about Megan McCafferty's prequel. I mean, more Jessica Darling is pretty much always acceptable, except for the fact that I had my reasons in stopping after two books, but that's an issue from another time. Anyway, now we can see Jessica tackle junior high, and McCafferty brings Jessica's trademark wit, observational skills and honesty to middle school.
Middle school Jessica does have a lot in common with high school Jessica, which is probably not all that surprising given that they are the same person separated by some timey-wimey stuff known as life. McCafferty does a good job making the narration similar but a bit different than that of the original series. This Jessica does come across a good deal younger. She's not got as impressive of a vocabulary, though she's starting to build it because she's discovered that her English teacher will really raise her essay grades for each thesaurus phrase substituted for a normal term. Plus, middle school Jessica is a lot more naive and less confident than high school Jessica.
By high school, Jessica Darling has pretty much comes to terms with her role in the social hierarchy and that she will never be the most popular girl in school. In middle school, Jessica's still trying to be what she's not. The series title, Jessica Darling's It List, is actually a bit misleading. In fact, this is Bethany's It List. Jessica's much older sister Bethany, in a rare instance of sisterly feeling, has decided to help Jessica avoid the curse of dorkdom by passing down the patented method for achieving popularity. Unsurprisingly, the It List does not work so well for Jessica.
See, Jessica, intelligent though she is, does not excel at pretending to be something she is not. Her half-hearted attempts end up fooling no one. Jessica's a bit of a dork and a teacher's pet, and there's no changing that. If she doesn't care about boys, she won't pretend to and she has trouble caring about her friends' woes over such things either. In fact, her biggest seventh grade fails occur when she stops being Jessica, like when she signs up for CHEER TEAM!!!, which she does not have the spirit for.
Megan McCafferty totally captures all the awkwardness of middle school. The romantic awkwardness, like how the boys chant at Bridget on the bus, like hooting like a pack of monkeys is really endearing. Or how Aleck (aka young Marcus Flutie) flirts with a "wear her down" annoyance tactic. The friendship awkwardness, which is pretty much encapsulated by Bridget becoming gorgeous just in time for seventh grade, leaving Jessica to be a normal. The middle school years especially are a time of transition where friendships come and go, and many BFFs are actually trying to climb on top of one another up the social ladder. Then there's the budding friendship between Hope and Jessica, who any readers of the original series know will be besties eventually, bonded by their judgment of everyone else's stupidity and ridiculous social rituals.
What Left Me Wanting More:
I'm not entirely certain why, but I was lacking that connection that I had in Jessica Darling that made me an emotional mess all the way through those.
The Final Verdict:
Though it's been too long for me to say with any assurance how well the occurrences here mesh with those of Sloppy Firsts, The (Totally Not) Guaranteed Guide to Popularity, Prettiness & Perfection does stand very nicely on its own. McCafferty's depiction of middle school cliques, awkwardness and romance shines with her trademark humor.