Saturday, October 22, 2016

Class Is Not Dismissed!

Class Is Not Dismissed!
by Gitty Daneshvari
Recommended Ages: 12+

In this sequel to School of Fear, a year has passed since batty beauty-pageant maven Mrs. Wellington started four quirky kids on the road to recovery from their phobias. But during that year, they have all secretly relapsed. Madeleine, the arachnophobe, lives a mostly normal life, but she still sleeps with an insect veil over her face. Formerly water-phobic Garrison now tries to pass himself off as a surfer dude, but he still hasn't put one toe in the ocean. Lulu, who armors herself with sarcasm to cover a deep and abiding terror of enclosed spaces, is exhausted after a year of faking trips to the bathroom and waiting for someone to share a trip in an elevator with her. And though Theo no longer drives his family crazy trying to confirm their "alive or dead" status every hour of the day, he thinks they might soon realize he is secretly spying on them. So they all have to go back to Mrs. Wellington's secretive School of Fear for another summer.

Unfortunately, they are joined by a chatterbox named Hyacinth, who is so frightened of being alone that she instantly anoints everyone she meets as "besties" and clings to them, I mean physically, until their fingers grow numb. She claims to understand her pet ferret Celery, to whom she attributes all her snotty remarks and naughty impulses. And when the other kids try for a moment of privacy from her, she throws a Category 4 panic attack. I just made that category up, but when it comes to creating offbeat characters and putting them in woolly situations, it's hard to out-do Gitty Daneshvari. If you think nothing can top the bizarre setting of the first installment in this series, wait till a burglar's blackmail note leads Mrs. W, her faithful manservant Schmidty, five kids, one ferret, and a fat bulldog named Macaroni on a race to a beauty pageant for dogs - complete with reckless driving, atrocious wardrobe decisions, a police interrogation, and a disruptive confrontation in front of a crowd of people dressed as their pets.

But the real crisis happens when one of the kids - don't ask me to hint about who - rats out School of Fear to a tabloid journalist. Now the secrecy, the very existence, of the only program that has ever helped these fear-afflicted kids is at stake, and that scares them most of all. To have any hope of saving School of Fear, they need (once again) to face their fears, get to the bottom of the mystery of Mrs. Wellington's one disastrous failure, and try to lure the one patient she couldn't help back for another go.

This is the middle book of a trilogy, which concludes with The Final Exam. It is also rich in the type of comedy that develops naturally from the interplay of several oddball characters. Their hopes and fears, their flaws and good intentions, their mutual frustrations and friendships, all play into a constant stream of hilarious repartee, embarrassing mishaps, and touching moments. In many ways School of Fear is too silly to be believed. But on the human level, it engages the reader's full sympathy and willingness to imagine. Whoever Gitty Daneshvari is - and I still think her head-shot is too good-looking to be true; besides which, her copyrights are registered to Cat On A Leash, Inc. - she knows how to cue laughter, build sympathy, and mine the heroic potential of ordinary, mostly unheroic kids.

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