(Janes in Love is the nominated book, but I went back and read The Plain Janes first, so I’ll review them together. It’s not necessary background, but it certainly helped.)
PJ opens with a terrorist bomb going off in Metro City, killing a number of people, and injuring more — including Jane. She’s fine, but the experience makes her decide she has to be “different,” to move away from her popular-crowd friends and embrace her artsy side. When her parents decide they’re too scared to live in the city anymore and move to the ‘burbs, hours away, Jane is “in hell” — there’s no art in Kent Waters! But then she meets the Janes: three very different outsider girls (who happen to be named Jane, Jayne, and Polly Jane), lunchtime seatmates of convenience who are bonded by Jane into an unstoppable force of public art. Meet P.L.A.I.N.: People Loving Art in Neighborhoods!
Unfortunately, it turns out gift-wrapped monuments and bottles hanging from a tree with messages inside — “sing,” “dance” — look like terrorism to the good people of Kent Waters. P.L.A.I.N. is shut down. …Until, in JiL, Jane applies for an arts grant to produce their biggest project yet.
I want to love these books. (And honestly, despite the lit-crit nit-picking to come, I did love them.) Misfit girls find a voice and true friendship through quirky displays of public art: what’s not to love? But so much of it feels off. The post-9/11 theme of overcoming fear is timely and important, but it comes across as forced — the sheriff, in particular, is far too one-dimensional a villain. Maybe I’m naive, but I didn’t buy that the town’s reaction to P.L.A.I.N. would be so universal and vehement.
But then, this is a classic high school movie. The Janes are right out of central casting: Sporty Jane hates shopping; Science Jayne has to design a pheromone to get a boy to like her; Theatre Jane talks in pretentious quotations. (And yes, they refer to themselves by those monikers.) There’s even the school dance scene where the kids save the record store. There are glimmers of originality in each of the characters — the best is Cindy, the blonde queen of the school who ends up invested in P.L.A.I.N. for her own reasons — but they never really shine. The story deserves better.
But here’s the thing: I loved these books anyway, and my issues with them won’t bother most kids, who will love them even more. It never hurts to read a warm ‘n fuzzy about girls who change their corner of the world for the better. After all, we certainly need more creative, beautiful public art — and many, many more bright and committed world-changers!