Bonnie’s been dragged to a new town.. As if that wasn’t unfair enough, Mum doesn’t know where to find a babysitter, so Bonnie is forced to spend the day at Charm School while Mum sits her boring exams. The indignity. Bonnie heads out determined to be anything but charming.
Charm School is a strange place. As if it isn’t bad enough on a regular Saturday, it is the annual ‘Curl’s’n’Purls’ show. The winner gets the glistering tiara, and the chance to choose their very own special name. And what names they are: Miss Cute Candy. Miss Stardust. Sweet Caroline. Not only do the girls learn to be charming, they learn how to flounce around in dresses and polish their elbows in lemon juice. Charm School is a place where girls come to be ‘ladylike’.
Bonnie is certain she doesn’t fit in. She hides behind stage, crossing her fingers the lighting technician won’t turn up and send her back into Charm School. When she befriends and immediately falls out with Araminta, Bonnie becomes certain it is her job to teach the girls a lesson they will never forget. Will the girls accept Bonnie’s ideas?
Charm School was published when I was ten. It was holiday ‘tradition’ to buy a book at the airport, (never mind we had only been to the airport once before. If I got another book, it was tradition.) Charm School looked a little short, but I loved Anne Fine’s work. The plane was delayed – we were sat on it for two hours before it took off. By the time I reached Greece, I’d read Charm School twice over. It didn’t matter. I read and reread it through the holiday, and have reread every year since. Of the books mentioned in the post which began my Flashback Friday series, Charm School is one of the most read.
In 2015, I introduced Charm School to a group of girls who came to the creative writing club at the bookshop I worked in. The group took to Charm School the way I had fifteen years before – they raced through it, but I never saw them more animated.
It may be short, but it opens the way for some deep discussion. Feminist narratives have become popular over the past year. Charm School was ahead of its game – or behind, if it was a product of the original feminist era. Perhaps the reason Anne Fine’s work connected with my opinionated-little -liberal-self was it was packed with messages I wanted to hear. Bill’s New Frock? Another great feminist narrative. Let me be clear – Anne Fine bangs a drum, but she does so quietly. Her message forms the beat of her story, but the story itself can be enjoyed even if the political undertones go over the reader’s head. Anne Fine is a great storyteller. Like Dick King-Smith, who I wrote about a fortnight ago, Anne Fine knows how to hold her audience’s attention.
Charm School is funny. It is funny on different levels. As a child, I appreciated the mayhem Bonny provokes, (‘nuff said,) for the sake of the mayhem itself. As an adult I appreciate the message behind that mayhem. I’m not saying I didn’t appreciate the message as a child. Tweenage girls notice nail-varnish and overpriced face-creams like no-one else. The book is aimed at an audience who is awakening to this strange idea that girls have a different set of standards to perfect. It challenges it in a kid-friendly way, but its message remains relevant. I think it will remain relevant when I am elderly, and wishing my wrinkles away.