Diana Har­mon Asher

  • Review
By – December 21, 2021

If you have for­got­ten the trau­mas of mid­dle school, as well as the plot and score of The Music Man, then Upstaged is the book for you. Diana Har­mon Asher’s fun­ny and engag­ing nov­el fol­lows Shi­ra Gor­don, a tal­ent­ed sev­enth grad­er cast in her school’s pro­duc­tion of the well-loved musi­cal, as she learns about courage and self-accep­tance. Thor­ough­ly believ­able char­ac­ters and authen­tic the­atri­cal details set Shira’s sto­ry apart from sim­i­lar mid­dle-grade fare. With mean girls and pushy stage moms, as well as tal­ent­ed kids caught up in the excite­ment of putting on a show, read­ers will be on the edge of their seats.

Shi­ra is qui­et and shy. She is also intro­spec­tive but, like any­one her age, some­times has trou­ble rec­on­cil­ing the con­tra­dic­tions of her per­son­al­i­ty. When her music teacher, Mr. Hoover, encour­ages every­one to try out for the school play, Shi­ra feels torn. No one in school ever seems to notice her and, some of the time, that invis­i­bil­i­ty feels safe. Yet she is also musi­cal­ly tal­ent­ed and has the gift of empathiz­ing with a char­ac­ter to enhance her per­for­mance. When Mr. Hoover casts her as a mem­ber of the bar­ber­shop quar­tet, it is a recog­ni­tion of her incred­i­ble vocal skills. He explains that trouser roles,” where females play male parts, are a time-hon­ored tra­di­tion, but this assur­ance does lit­tle to pro­tect her from the nasty teas­ing that she con­fronts. Hedge­brook Mid­dle School has a typ­i­cal mix of stu­dents; some are inse­cure and cru­el, but oth­ers are warm and empa­thet­ic. The author’s descrip­tions nev­er slip into caricature.

Shira’s neme­sis is Mon­i­ca Man­ley, the girl cast as Mar­i­an the Librar­i­an, the lead female role. She and her moth­er have con­vinced the entire school that she is Broad­way bound, but she has none of the sen­si­tiv­i­ty or intu­ition that grace Shira’s per­for­mance. Sec­ondary char­ac­ters fill out the nar­ra­tive, each one adding dif­fer­ent dimen­sions to this com­ing-of-age sto­ry. Shira’s sup­port­ive friend, Cassie, and Paul Gar­cía, who per­forms the lead role of Pro­fes­sor Harold Hill, also deal with their own dilem­mas, but all of them have time to help one anoth­er. The nar­ra­tive is fast-paced with attempt­ed sab­o­tage of the show, a mys­te­ri­ous and some­what inept direc­tor, and some poten­tial romance.

Shi­ra is Jew­ish, although the only explic­it ref­er­ences to her her­itage involve a bar mitz­vah par­ty, accu­rate­ly pre­sent­ed as an over-the-top and stress­ful expe­ri­ence. Ash­er cap­tures the nature of this life-cycle event, describ­ing invi­ta­tions that spread glit­ter on the floor when opened, an exces­sive amount of food, and headache-induc­ing music. The scene is also the set­ting for Shi­ra to inter­act with oth­er stu­dents and to learn that she is not alone in feel­ing anx­ious. One of the most refresh­ing aspects of the book is that the author does not pathol­o­gize Shira’s shy­ness, inter­pret­ing it as part of her per­son­al­i­ty, not a dis­or­der to be over­come. In fact, this core part of who she is allows Shi­ra to iden­ti­fy with the equal­ly shy Mar­i­an, and to under­stand that suc­cess­ful act­ing involves inhab­it­ing the role she plays. Final­ly, that role is Shi­ra Gor­don herself.

This high­ly rec­om­mend­ed book includes the list of songs from The Music Man that are­quot­ed in the novel.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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