The Agony of Alice
(1987) is the first of the beloved children’s and young adult Alice
book series by author Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. Over the course of more than 25 novels, the series follows Alice from sixth grade through her 20s, chronicling the trials and tribulations faced by this likable and relatable young woman. To make sure that her novels were grounded in realism, Naylor used details from her own adolescence and remembered incidents from the lives of her friends and even her mother. The novels are episodic, focusing on moments of embarrassment and epiphany. What emerges is a sympathetic and insightful look at the inner life of a preteen, teen, and adult that eschews melodrama and plot twists in favor of a matter-of-fact discussion of more universal rites of passage. Because Naylor doesn’t shy away from topics like sexuality and the normal development of the human body, the series has often ended up on the American Library Association’s list of most frequently banned books.
Twelve-year-old Alice McKinley has spent her life so far in Tacoma Park, Maryland. When she was five, her mother died of leukemia, leaving behind Alice and her older brother, Lester, to be raised by their father. Her father runs a music shop that sells jokey paraphernalia like notepads that read “Chopin Liszt” instead of “Shopping List,” while her cool, slobby 19-year-old brother is already in junior college, beset by a variety of girlfriends.
When the novel opens, the McKinleys are in the process of moving from Tacoma Park to Silver Spring, the next town over. Even though it’s not a big move, Alice is happy to leave behind the embarrassments of her old neighborhood. She is particularly mortified to recall such misadventures as roping her next-door neighbor, Donald Sheavers, into reenacting a kissing scene from a movie and being caught by the milkman (a minor character who is updated into a mailman in later editions).
Alice is excited to finally start middle school with her friend Elizabeth and her sometimes friend—but sometimes rival—Pamela. At the same time, now that she is almost a teenager, she has really started to feel the absence of her mother. Although her father and brother are loving, caring, and open to discussing almost everything Alice brings up, Alice wants a female role model and guide—someone to sew her Halloween costumes and to explain menstruation. She asked Lester about it once, but he told her that a period is something “looks like a comma without the tail and goes at the end of a sentence.” Alice worries that she will never learn how to be a teenage girl.
Alice decides that the solution to her problem will be getting assigned to the class of glamorous sixth-grade teacher Miss Cole—a beautiful woman who seems to have it all together. But it is just Alice’s luck to instead end up in the classroom of Mrs. Plotkin, a dowdy and visually uninspiring teacher. When Mrs. Plotkin assigns the class to keep a diary, Alice titles hers “The Agony of Alice”—it is to be a record of the many embarrassing things that happen daily.
These moments, which range from awkward to downright mortifying, include many funny scenes. There is the time Lester takes Alice shopping for a pair of jeans without realizing that men’s and women’s sizes are different. What is more, once they finally find a pair, Alice stumbles into the wrong fitting room and there comes face to face with Patrick, a boy from school, standing in just his underwear. As Alice intuited, the solution involves a helpful woman—in this case, a salesperson at the Gap who helps her find well-fitting new jeans.
More help arrives in the form of the sister of Alice’s mother, Aunt Sally and her daughter Carol Anne. Although often used as comic relief for her penchant for buying Alice frilly dresses, Aunt Sally also reminds Alice of her mother and is thus a comforting presence. Having an older girl cousin like Carol Anne also turns out to be a good thing—Carol Anne takes Alice shopping for her first bra. The women are also there for Alice when she gets her first period, in a scene written with down-to-earth description and a sense that puberty is normal and healthy.
In school, Alice must cross several social hurdles. In a bid to valorize Miss Cole, Alice contemptuously dismisses Mrs. Plotkin as “pear-shaped” and unworthy of more than the barest respect—a horribly public comment that backfires when Alice realizes that Miss Cole’s lovely exterior masks an unpleasant personality.
In the novel’s most dramatic scene, Alice loses her cool entirely during a school play in which she must portray a bramble bush while erstwhile frenemy Pamela gets to be a singing princess. Overcome by her sense of unfairness, Alice acts out in a truly cringe-worthy fashion, grabbing Pamela’s long princess wig hair. The resulting chaos disrupts the play to the point that the performance is ruined. Feeling guilty and despondent, Alice seeks out Mrs. Plotkin and unburdens her heart: Could she be “growing backwards” instead of progressing toward adulthood? Mrs. Plotkin responds with kindness and empathy—a fact that isn’t lost on Alice, seeing that it comes after she was so mean to her teacher.
In response, Alice starts a new section in her journal—a chart that tracks her forward and backward progress in a variety of ways. Because she is keeping this metric, Alice makes deliberate efforts to work on herself, staying accountable in quite a grownup way. The effort pays off, and Alice reconnects with Pamela, understands more deeply that Mrs. Plotkin is the role model she had wanted all along, and even figures out that Patrick has been leaving her candy and crushing on her from a distance. Happily, she likes him too, and they start hanging out together.
The novel ends on a lovely note. When Alice tells Mrs. Plotkin how sad she is to leave her classroom for seventh grade, Mrs. Plotkin gives Alice a ring that has been passed down through the women in her family for generations. Because Mrs. Plotkin doesn’t have children, she thinks Alice would be the best person to have this symbol of their bond.