The Plain Janes is all about...uh...Jane, a popular girl who is caught in a terrorist explosion. Jane survives but afraid that next time she might not be so lucky her parents relocate from the city to the safe suburbs of Kent Waters. The explosion really gets Jane thinking and she realises she wants more in life than being popular. She redesigns herself and instead of sitting at the cool girl table on her first day of school she sits with the 'rejects', a group of girls (and one guy) who all happen to be called variations on the name Jane. Jane wants to channel her feelings from her bad experience into making the world a more beautiful place and together with the other Janes create art installations in the dead of night (think Banksy or Knit Bombing) however not everyone can see the art in P.L.A.I.N's (People Loving Art in Neighbourhoods) art and will do anything to stop them from defacing Kent Waters any further.
Janes in Love continues the activities of P.L.A.I.N with Jane realising the only way she can continue to make Kent Waters more beautiful is to make her art legal however whilst she's applying for an arts grant the other Janes are flaking out on her as the Leap Year Dance (their school's Valentine's Day ball) is coming!
The Janes books are some of the more positive books in the Minx series. You know that whatever the plot suggests things are going to turn out okay for Jane and her crew. This is great if you need a lift on a miserable day but not so good if you want some gritty realism. A more subtler positivity that the books contain is the concept of turning something ugly into something beautiful. Jane believes deeply in her cause - a project that will not only help her work through her trauma of the bombing but also change for the better the lives of everyone around her - and works at it doggedly no matter what fate throws at her. When you think of the more popular Young Adult heroines such as Bella Swan and Clary Fray such selflessness and dedication puts Jane head and shoulders above them as a positive young adult role model.
The other Janes are more stereotypical which is fine in the first book but a little lazy in the second. Each Jane is known as their thing eg Theatre Jane and Sporty Jane and that's pretty much as deep as they get. There is the odd twist to their stereotyping eg Sporty Jane though very unladylike is the first to bag herself a boy in Janes in Love but it's rare. Clever Jane's quirk is that her parents are two gay men which though unusual and refreshing isn't really about her, is it? Then there is James, the only gay in the village...er...I mean Buzz Aldrin High (best name for a school ever). We know he's gay because his face is drawn differently from all the other male characters and he only ever hangs out with girls. He is most definitely stereotyped by his sexuality which is sad as I know that wasn't the intention. I really wanted him to find some straight / gay male friends so that he could explore aspects of himself that he couldn't with a bunch of straight girls.
The most developed of the other Janes is Theatre Jane which is ironic as her speech patterns are the most unbelievable (she talks like a male Shakespearean actor). This development happens in Janes in Love where she goes to meet her crush (theatre actor Rhys) on the same day Jane goes to her arts grant pitch. Theatre Jane goes from being a stubborn drama queen to showing a gentler, more nervous and fragile side as well as displaying very endearing resilience.
Janes in Love definitely has the stronger narrative (The Plain Janes' overarching story is very basic - succeed at spreading art - leaving lots of space to explore Jane making friends, spreading art, understanding her feelings, getting an art crush on a guy in a coma and winning bad boy Grant) but the 'girls falling in love' part of it is much less original. Maybe it's because every slice of life Young Adult book aimed at female readers involves at least one obligatory romance or maybe it's because the other Janes don't really expand beyond their characters established in the first book that it feels unimaginative. I mean if you're going to do teen romance you really need to put a new spin on it. Theatre Jane's visit to Rhys does have that spin and there is a suggestion of a lesbian encounter but apart from that it's all pretty much paint by numbers stuff. Luckily art is not completely forgotten in the second book and Jane's attempt to continue P.L.A.I.N is enough to carry the book through (though you are never in any doubt about how the art grant will go).
Apart from James not looking like anyone else in either of the books (this is particularly apparent in Janes in Love where his eyes are just dots) the art, as usual, is first class. Jim manages to combine bold lines with wispy shading. The characters (apart from James) have large eyes that really do act like the doors to their souls. I could honestly stare at main Jane's eyes all day. The characters and backgrounds, though not always 100% realistic have so much beauty an emotion to them. They feel like art which I suppose makes them perfect for books about the beauty of art.
You'll like The Plain Janes / Janes in Love if you like:
Rookie, Art School Confidential (and the art class scenes in the Ghost World movie), The Gilmore Girls, It's Kind of a Funny Story, The Perks of Being s Wallflower and knit bombing
Also by Jim Rugg:
Street Angel, Afrodisiac, One Model Nation, and The Guild.
Novels by Cecil Castellucci:
Boy Proof, The Queen of Cool, Beige, Rose Sees Red, Grandma's Gloves, First Day on Earth, The Year of Beasts and Odd Duck.
Cecil is also an indie rock musician releasing music as Nerdy Girl and Cecil Seaskull. Maybe I should do Friday Feature on her music. What do you think?