I first met Alice McKinley when I was 11 and really, really needed a friend. I know it sounds borderline creepy to refer to a fictional character as a friend, but I was a painfully shy and awkward kid, and reading was a lot easier for me than attempting a conversational gambit (“Want to diagram sentences with me?”) with an actual person. Ink and paper was just so much less daunting than flesh and blood.
Plus, as anyone who’s ever been an 11-year-old girl knows, 11-year-old girls are pretty crappy to each other. In memories, sixth grade is just a blur of pain and hormones; my two best friends and I were engaged in a series of fights and elaborate reconciliation rituals that were far and away more abusive than any relationship I’ve had with a man.
I’ve written about my enduring readership of children’s literature before, but Alice is special. Part of it, I think, is the universality of the character; Alice is just so relatable. But I think more of it was timing. I couldn’t tell you exactly when I met some of my closest friends, but I remember exactly when I met Alice McKinley.
It was an unseasonably chilly weekend in March of 1992. The JCC was holding a sock hop, and the boy I had a crush on (whom, incidentally, I just looked up on Facebook, and boy, did I dodge a bullet there!) would be there, along with pretty much everyone else in sixth grade except for one girl whose mother was insanely overprotective. And me. Because I had to go to Arkansas for my dad’s fourth wedding. I was propped up on faded throw pillows in the backseat of my aunt and uncle’s car, listening to Richard Marx tapes on my Walkman and sulking as hard as I could. As we drove out of Louisiana, I heaved a huge sigh, reached into my hot-pink-and-denim backpack and pulled out The Agony of Alice. And as the bayou faded behind me on I-55, so too did my resentment. I was utterly captivated, pulled into Alice’s world. I forgot to worry about whether my crush was slow-dancing with my rival or how much fun my best friends were having without me. Alice and her best friends, Elizabeth and Pamela, kept me company all the way to Arkansas. And we have been friends ever since.
The way the series is written, Alice ages four months per book, and one new book comes out each May. This particular time lapse means that Alice is now 17, and I am 30. For a brief while, Alice and I were exactly in step; we had sweet, chaste summer romances just before junior high. Now, 19 years later, Alice is graduating high school, still a virgin, and heading to college, and I am divorced with a 4-year-old and a master’s degree. (My father, for the record, went on to have both a fourth divorce and a fifth wedding.)
But tonight, after I read Green Eggs and Ham to Ruby for the 1,000th time, after I sing her her bedtime song and bunch the covers around her and kiss her sweet sleeping face, I will retreat to my own bed and burrow under the duvet with Incredibly Alice, which was just released this week.
So much has changed since that cold, lonely spring weekend so long ago, but there is still no friend like an old friend.