Thursday, November 03, 2016

Standard Operating Procedure? The Friendship Experiment by Erin Teagan

I can't get used to the idea of this estate sale. All these people, touching all of Grandpa's stuff, pulling things off shelves, carrying them off to who knows where. Probably a good thing Grandpa's not alive to see this.

"I'm Riley," she says "Does this still work?" A girl stands in front of me. I can't believe what she's holding in her hand. "Not for sale!" I say, taking the gold clock away from her. She probably took it right of Grandpa's desk. It even has his name, LEONARD LITTLE, BIOCHEMIST.

I wish there was an Standard Operating Procedure for all of this that would fix everything. Grandpa would know how to write it. But now that he's gone, it's up to me.

To Maddie, it seems as if everyone is moving away from her at warp speed. Grandpa is dead, her best friend Elizabeth is going to a fancy middle school, and even her thirteen-year-old sister Brooke is disappearing into a teen world of cheerleaders and boys, and has moved out of their room for the basement, ostensibly to escape Maddie's smelly Petri dish experiments.

At least she has a new job as student assistant with her dad's lab, where he is working with a rare enzyme to cure the familial blood disease, Von Willebrand's disease, which causes Brook's frequent nosebleeds. But Maddie inadvertently leaves the vial of the enzyme out of the freezer, threatening the success of her father's research, and Dad bars her from the lab.

Maddie takes a blank lab notebook from Grandpa's house which she uses to skewer her classmates with SOPs--standard operating procedures--directed sarcastically toward everyone, Elizabeth for finding new friends, Riley for bragging about astronaut camp and wearing noisy bangle bracelets, and her independent study classmates for being, well, themselves, not Elizabeth.

But the SOPs don't help. Made to go to Riley's birthday party, Maddie actually has a good time with Riley, who shows her the precious meteorite. But when she accidentally leaves her lab book behind, Riley reads what is inside and is so hurt that she shares its contents with their classmates, and Maddie finds herself spending lunch periods in the girls' bathroom alone. To make things even worse, Maddie has her first nosebleed like Brooke's, bleeding all over the team jersey of Brooke's secret crush, soccer star Dexter Sully.

And hiding out one lunch period in the restroom, she finds Brooke, with a rapidly swelling elbow. Maddie knows Brooke has a dangerous subcutaneous bleed, but Brooke refuses to call their parents and slams angrily out to make the scheduled cheerleader photo for the annual. But by the time Maddie boards her bus after school, she sees her sister being loaded on a gurney and taken to the hospital.

I wonder how all of this happened. How could I let everything get so out of control? Not only does everyone at school hate me for the mean things I wrote in my notebook, but I walked away from Brooke when she needed me. And I ruined Dad's research.

You can't write a standard operating procedure for all of life, Maddie learns, in Erin Teagan's new The Friendship Experiment (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016). And when Maddie remembers Grandpa's own formula, "Always be kind," she begins to put things to rights, re-writing a set of procedures for success in middle school and in her family, and things begin to change. Author Teagan keeps the story real but upbeat, with a family which deals positively with whatever comes, and despite her inauspicious first days of middle school, Maddie musters her spirit and moves on hopefully. Like that classic story of another middle grader whose misplaced secret and sarcastic notebook gets her in trouble with her classmates (Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy), this is a middle-school novel which deals less with social popularity per se, but rather more with the protagonist's internal understanding of other people's feelings, making it a very welcome addition to this genre.

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