Review: Don’t Vote for Me – Krista Van Dolzer

Book review: Don't Vote for Me by Krista van DolzerDavid Grainger is a twelve-year-old band geek at Shepherd’s Vale Middle School, where his big mouth lands him in hot water yet again when he finds himself signed up to the race for class president, a position that has hitherto been held unanimously by the super popular Veronica Pritchard-Pratt. Caught between wanting to stand up to the ‘queen bee’ and fleeing the country, David finally resolves to step up and show Veronica that the populars don’t rule the school.

What David doesn’t expect is for Veronica to welcome the competition with open arms – she’s tired of winning by default.

And as if the stress of campaigning isn’t enough, David finds himself forced to cooperate with Veronica on a duet performance of La Vie en Rose for the school recital.

Inevitably, as the story and campaigns progress, an unlikely friendship is formed between the two running mates as they learn valuable lessons about making assumptions, responsibility and independence.

But there can only be one class president.

Don’t Vote for Me wastes no time, plunging you headfirst into the story within the breadth of a page through fast-paced, first-person narration that establishes the setting, characters and dilemma quicker than you can say ‘hyperbole’.

There were three kinds of kids at Shepherd’s Vale Middle School: the populars, the unpopulars, and Riley and me. It wasn’t that we were disliked; it was that we were invisible. We could have dressed up like Splinter and Casey Jones – the costumes were two Halloweens old, but we hadn’t grown much – and no one would have noticed.

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So when I saw that sign-up sheet, I didn’t stop to consider what I was going to say, just caught Riley’s eye and flicked a thumb over my shoulder.

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‘Looks like it’s time for the Pritchard-Pratt’s annual coronation.’

We’re taken straight into the story in an immediate and engaging way and a tone that is easy and conversational – a quality necessary today more than ever given our rapidly shrinking attention spans.

‘But why should we have to settle for Pritchard-Pratt?’ I demanded. ‘Does she represent our views, our opinions?’

x

The words poured out of me like water from a backed-up toilet. I’d been gaining volume, and now most of the kids scattered around the commons were staring up – or down – at me. Their attention made me want to keep talking, talking, talking.

x

‘No!’ I said, raising my fist. ‘So I say it’s time we fight!’

x

Stronger words hadn’t been spoken since that Patrick Henry guy had said, Give me liberty, or give me death! The other kids responded by raising their fists, too, and whispering urgently to their neighbors. Hope bloomed in my chest like a helium balloon. For the first time in my life, someone was paying attention.

Several parts of Don’t Vote for Me had me laughing out loud, using lots of colourful similes and juvenile turns of phrase that children will lap up. Young readers will also enjoy the slightly eccentric teacher characters, such as the reluctant Mr Ashton (‘Either he was very bad at interpreting social cues, or he was very good at listening to himself talk’) and the mildly threatening Ms Clementi (‘Hyperbole!’).

On top of this, there are also some nice parallels with how the world actually works, with the school serving as a microcosm for general society:

‘I mean, who died and made them popular?’

x

‘We did,’ Spencer said. ‘We talk about what clothes they wear, what songs they like to listen to, and what movies and TV shows they watch. They’re popular because we say they are.’

Veronica Pritchard-Pratt, our hero’s ‘nemesis’, is an interesting if slightly unbalanced character. The most popular girl in school, she is confident and satisfactorily independent, doing things like refusing to accept help from others, even her largely invisible boyfriend, Brady. But behind her glossy exterior lies a turbulent home life and a whack of insecurity. She isn’t set up as a horrible person at all, which is a nice change to many books set in school, but rather she is private and perceived by others as being cold. The part that stopped her being an entirely believable character, for me at least, was her lack of confidence with her friends/council members in one part of the book, where she lets herself be downtrodden and entirely unheard whereas throughout the rest of the book she’s ‘queen bee’ among her friends. Her lack of confidence at other points of in the book is understandable, but there is the odd bit that just feels out of character.

I also couldn’t help noticing a few bits of the story that I found jarring. At one point, for example, Veronica says she can’t hang about the music room because then people might talk about how she’s in band as well as being popular – ‘She was the queen bee of the populars, but she was an imposter – and I was the only one who knew’ narrates David – and she’s afraid that the news might reach her parents. This is despite the fact that she goes to band practice, frequents the band room before/after school and has been asked to play a duet in the school recital (which would necessitate extra practice – which she does at home as well as at school). This just seemed like a bit of a flimsy plot device as her friends, classmates and teachers are all surely aware of her musical involvement, not just David.

Also, towards the end of the book, David considers throwing the election because he thinks winning means more to Veronica. The idea sent up red flags immediately – Veronica had been the uncontested class president, but the moment a boy runs against her the outcome is up to him: either he wins, or he grants her the victory. The actual ending of the book doesn’t quite follow this trope, thankfully, but it lends itself enough to the idea (in the election and the music recital) to strike a little nerve.

There is also a part where Esther, a character who shows herself to be strong both mentally and physically early in the book, is approached by a boy who looks like he wants to kiss her, and instead of handling it the way you expect her character to – i.e. badass-edly – she squeals until David comes to her rescue because he is a ‘gentleman’. Perhaps these aren’t big things overall, but they certainly make me twitch.

I know this seems like a fair amount of complaints, but to be honest I don’t think they are massive points as I may be overanalysing. And I do think that children would enjoy reading this book – it’s a fun and easy read that even I, with my nit-pickiness and social-justice tendencies, enjoyed. It is also worth bearing in mind that I read the book before the text was finalised, and it is likely that it was tightened up prior to publication.

Despite a few lapses, Don’t Vote for Me is an enjoyable book, with strong characterisation that children will be able to identify with and a fair few hijinks that they’ll enjoy (paintballing included!). This is one book that will find a good fit in any middle school library.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Don’t Vote for Me was published by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky on 4 August 2015, ISBN: 9781492609414.

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