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Tank Tops and Short Shorts and Bears, Oh My!

The Connecticut town where 14-year-old Molly Frost is surviving the end of her eighth-grade year has a bear problem. Bears have taken to wandering into people’s backyards and through the woods near the middle school, forcing the local school board to address the issue and prompting Molly, the main character in Carrie Firestone’s DRESS CODED (Putnam, 320 pp., $17.99; ages 10 and up), to sometimes carry a bear stick for protection.

But there are other hazards in the lives of Molly and her classmates that, while not as overtly threatening as a large animal, are a source of fear and anxiety. In fact, they may be more terrifying than the bears.

This timely middle grade debut by the author of two best-selling young adult novels is made up of short chapters, lists, letters and transcripts of a podcast that Molly starts to bring attention to a sexist, vague dress code enforced by several power-hungry administrators at her school (one of whom is known only as Fingertip, because she insists a girl’s shorts must be at least as long as the wearer’s fingers). Molly is prompted to start the podcast after observing a classmate get in trouble for wearing a tank top: “When Mr. Dern and Dr. Couchman were yelling at her … I witnessed a piece of her soul leave her body.” Molly’s project, recorded in the same treehouse where she once enjoyed younger, more carefree days, sparks a revolution.

While unfair dress coding of female students is the central indignity suffered in this novel, Firestone has a knack for capturing the other agonies of middle school; indeed, adult readers might find the book more painful, as they are sure to have buried some of their own difficult memories down deep. Social isolation, peer rejection, puberty (whether it’s happening too fast or not at all), unrequited crushes, bizarre teaching methods and anxious, embarrassing parents all make the list, each expertly depicted for maximum realism. Modern horrors such as the fear of school shootings and social media debacles are also mentioned. One chapter, entitled “The Bully Box,” about a box for sharing anonymous concerns with school officials, is a blunt, two-page portrayal of the hypocrisy of the adult world that most young teenagers are eventually forced to face.

But this novel, while brutal in its honesty, is also quite funny and full of hope. Molly is a spunky, utterly delightful narrator, a witty but still believable 14-year-old whose amusing observations of daily middle school life often balance out the heavy subject matter. (“Navya eats all the cheese off Bea’s pizza, and Bea eats Navya’s crusts. That’s some serious friendship.”) In addition to dealing with dress code drama at school, Molly faces her own struggles at home. Her kind but stressed-out parents are preoccupied with Molly’s older brother, an angry 17-year-old addicted to vaping, but the reader never doubts Molly is cared for and loved. It’s refreshing to read a novel with fully fleshed-out adult characters who are sure to ring true for young people navigating the fraught years of adolescence and their impact on parent-child relationships.

As the popularity of Molly’s podcast and its accompanying movement against the dress code grows, a rich cast of characters joins the fight. The representation is diverse, with young teenagers of many different races, cultures and sexualities represented. The tentacles of the dress code capture certain girls more frequently than others, including a Black character who is dress-coded for “tall hair.” A character living with cerebral palsy plays a prominent role and is particularly well drawn. Such wide-ranging inclusiveness might have felt like someone marking a checklist, but in Firestone’s capable hands the varied group of students is totally believable.

For all its realism, the novel ends with almost cinematic success for Molly and her friends. Some may find the ending too perfect. But never mind that. To young teenagers in 2020, this book is a much-needed reminder that certain fights are worth fighting, that while bears of all types may prowl unsettlingly close, fear can be faced down and victories achieved, especially with strength in numbers.

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