I found Close to Famous a great story for middle school students. It deals with many issues that are faced by students every day: moms with jerky boyfriends, difficulty in school, and trying to figure out where you fit in. This book also throws in some deep issues; the death of a parent, how to save your hometown, and not being able to read. Foster McFee is an unlikely heroine, but she "going to make the world a better place, one cupcake at a time." (pg. 250)
The story opens with Foster and her mother fleeing from their apartment, Memphis, and mom's Elvis impersonator boyfriend, Huck. They have to leave in a hurry and accidentally leave Foster's most prized possession, a Las Vegas pillow case filled with her father's belongings. The end up in Culpepper, West Virginia where they meet numerous people that are ready to give them a second chance. As they settle into life in Culpepper, they start to give back and help make their new town a better place.
I thought it was very clever that Joan Bauer showed us two sides of Foster. I really appreciate that she introduced the fact that Foster was a gifted baker and had a love for a good cupcake from the beginning of the story. It let you know that Foster has a talent and a passion for something. You feel like it's the thing that keeps her going, just knowing that baking is there as her safety net. I also thought it was clever to have a former marine, Sonny, as the television cooking host that Foster idolizes. With the popularity of cooking shows made it the book more modern. Sonny, being a marine, also made the connection to her father who was killed in the Iraq war. These things make you want to pull for Foster and see her succeed.
It's only after you get to know Foster that you learn that she can't read and has struggled through school barely passing the 6th grade. Since you are already invested in her character it's almost painful to see her try to hide the fact she can't read. I did think it was kind of obvious that Miss Charleena, a famous actress, would end up helping Foster with her reading and that Foster would help her get back out into the real world. But I liked the fact that someone was willing to use Foster's passion of cooking to help her fight through her reading. It reminds us that every child has a talent.
Finally I thought that Joan Bauer did an amazing job writing about Foster and the loss of her father to war. I haven't seen any other books that even try to touch the subject, and I know there are lots of children who have lost a parent to war, accidents, and to other violence. They never got the chance to know their parent and they are still grieving for the person and the what might have been if they had lived. I also thought it was a nice touch that Bauer made Lester, a tow truck driver that offered them a place to live, a veteran so that Foster finally had someone to answer her questions about what her father's life must have been like in the final days. He tells her "Keeping your cool and doing your job the best you can goes a long way in the army. A mighty long way. I imagine your daddy was a hero lots of times, more that you could count." (pg. 182) Foster comments "Broken places need something to fill them in. I just kept walking with Lester, filling up with all he had to say." (pg. 182) He quietly steps in as a father figure for her which is heart warming to see.
After some heavier reading Close to Famous was refreshingly light and fun. I think it would be a great read for middle school students. It deserved the Schneider Family Award for the positive way it dealt with Foster's difficulty in reading. The story sends the inspiring message that you can be successful, you just have to try and have people that believe in you!