Hidden gems, to me, are those books which are maybe older, or were first published in another country and never really made it here, or just never gained popularity no matter how good they were. Today’s hidden gems are a series of books by Constance C. Greene about a girl called Al and her best friend, who is the narrator of the books and goes unnamed through most of them.
A Girl Called Al is the first book, and this is the one I was talking about back in my review of Stargirl. I had read this one and the second one as a kid/young adult and really liked them, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember what the book was called or who the author was. All I could remember was this: the main character was girl named Alexandra who went by Al, she moved to New York City from LA (which the narrator had never heard of and thought it was “Ellay”), and Al used the word “non-conformist” to refer to herself a lot. So when I put some combination of these things into Google, I kept getting Stargirl back as a result (I think it was the “non-conformist” part). I gave up and resigned myself to the fact that I might never figure out what that book was – until I was shelving chapter books one day and lifted my head only to come face-to-face with the second book in the series, I Know You, Al, on display on one of the shelves. I regret that I was alone in the department at the time and had no one to share my excitement with. A Girl Called Al was published in 1969, and the vocabulary, expressions, and situations in the novel reflect this, but in a funny, refreshing, realistic way. Al and her best friend befriend the older superintendent in their apartment building and try to grow up in a way that progresses beyond the social norms around them, but are totally endearing in the way they go about it.
The second book is called I Know You, Al. Al gets a letter from her father who she hasn’t seen in years, saying that he’s about to get married. She takes up needlepoint and gives herself bangs. She agonizes over what shoes to wear to her father’s wedding and wonders what her stepmother and stepbrothers will be like. Al and the narrator keep navigating their lives and their friendship with the same distinct personalities – they seem real and smart and charming and tough, and all the characters are drawn with a sort of funny wryness that really won me over, especially once I tracked down the books and reread them.
To my surprise, though, I discovered just in the course of writing this post that we have several other books in the series which I never knew existed: Your Old Pal, Al, Al(exandra) the Great, Just Plain Al, and Al’s Blind Date. I’m pretty excited to read them and see how the story goes.
-posted by Kayleigh, children’s desk staff