I finished this lovely novel and immediately downloaded it to my tween’s Kindle so she could read it, too. (She did not. I regret every time I try to make her read something and she insists on choosing her own reading material. It’s the worst.)
Dress Coded opens with Molly Frost interviewing her classmate Olivia for a podcast. Olivia is currently the most hated girl in 8th grade. See, Olivia was busted for a dress code violation and in doing so, lost the entire class a school-sponsored camping trip. However, Molly thinks everyone deserves to know the whole story of Olivia’s dress code violation.
Olivia’s situation is only the most recent incident in an ongoing situation at the middle school. Girls are frequently targeted by a pair of school administrators for wardrobe transgressions. But not all girls. Girls who have developed “too fast” and bigger girls are favorites while the smaller, thinner girls are more often left alone.
Molly, struggling with troubles at home, channels her anxiety into a crusade to right this wrong. She launches a podcast and interviews classmates about their run-ins with the administration. The podcast and her efforts to get the adults around her to listen help Molly to gain the confidence that can be so challenging to maintain for middle school girls.
Molly’s circle is a Benetton ad, which may or may not feel terribly realistic, depending on your level of cynicism. There’s the boy with a traumatic brain injury, the Asian girl, the Black girl, the girl who likes girls, the rich girl with the “is she racist or just Republican” mom. I confess that the diversity didn’t feel organic, but I’m also a parent of a middle schooler in a town adjacent to the story’s setting, and can acknowledge that it’s not an impossible mix.
The story is really affirming, though. Molly grows into a leader. She reconnects with friends she lost in the transition to middle school, and you can see that she’ll lose some of her current circle as she transitions to the high school. Her family is loving, even as they are struggling. Firestone keeps Molly’s crusade from feeling like a first world problem.
Two complaints: First, the villains of the story are cartoonishly evil. Not quite Dolores Umbridge, but closer to that end of the spectrum than I’d prefer. I’m not saying it’s not possible. I’m saying I would have liked to have seen at least a passing explanation for the rigid enforcement of the rules. Like, anything. But there’s nothing. It’s as simple as “this is what the handbook says and students must abide”.
Second, I was enormously frustrated that none of the parents seemed to have picked up on the dress code thing as a serious issue. I understand that parents don’t always take the concerns of children seriously–guilty–but a girl being prevented from taking a final exam due to wearing a spaghetti strap top seems like something upper middle class moms and dads would definitely speak up about.
So, two thumbs up. Would recommend to any middle grade reader you know. (Sooner, rather than later, before the podcast references seem dated.)