Where's my inner paedophile when I really need him? This sounds incredible in retrospect, but I'd read more than a dozen books in this series without once stopping to wonder whether Lili was sexy. Of course, given that I'm 52 and she's 8, that would be somewhat inappropriate. But, from her point of view, it's a perfectly normal question - when you're that age, you already spend a lot of time worrying about how attractive you are compared to the other kids around you.
I think back to my own fourth grade class, and, yup, there's no doubt about it. Avril was fat and ugly. Jeanette had a kind of slutty charm. Catherine was just plain gorgeous. I felt all gooey inside every time I even looked in her direction. Once, it seemed for about two seconds that there was a possibility of kissing her, and I still have a vivid recollection of this missed opportunity.
Lili, you will have gathered by now, is kind, funny and extremely bright. I'm afraid to say, though, that she's not sexy. She's too thin. Her nose is pointy. Her ears stick out. Her hair's no good. Usually, she manages not to think about all these unwelcome facts. But then her aunt and uncle visit with her insufferably cute cousin, and all at once she can't think about anything else.
"How would you describe me?" she asks her friend Hugo apropos of nothing at all.
"Uh... you're nice!" says Hugo.
"Is that nice-and-sexy or nice-and-ugly?" asks Lili. Poor Hugo hasn't yet learned this particular conditioned reflex, and he's slow answering. Lili flounces off, leaving him wondering WTF is going on.
She's in a black depression for a couple of days. But then they have gym class, and she's paired with Marlène. Marlène isn't just kinda small and a little weird-looking. She's seriously overweight, verging on grotesque. But she's somehow learned to understand that she has inner beauty. The exercise for the day is climbing a rope, and Marlène absolutely can't do it. Some other kids are yelling unkind things, but she's not bothered at all.
"A dove can fly higher than a toad can spit," she tells Lili, a phrase I will remember myself next time it's relevant. Lili gives her a push, and, rather as in that scene from An Officer and a Gentleman
, Marlène finds that she can get a couple of metres off the ground. Both girls are pleased with themselves.
At lunch, a hunky boy comes up to Lili.
"I was so impressed with the way you handled those creeps at gym class!" he says. "You're nice!"
Lili is sure he's making advances, and has an instant fantasy involving him, her and some serious hand-holding action. But it doesn't last long.
"I... I wonder if you could tell Marlène that I'm sorta sweet on her," the boy continues. Damn! How come ugly Marlène can land herself a boyfriend, and Lili can't? She passes on the message, and is astonished when Marlène turns him down flat.
"I thought you wouldn't have so much..." begins Lili, bemused, but Marlène cuts her off. "He's not my type," she says. "No point in trying." Wow. Her friend may not be much of a looker, but she's certainly got something Lili lacks.
Lili's always quick to pick up on a new insight, and things have finally come into focus for her. Accept who you are, and make the most of it! Obvious, really. And she's got the perfect opportunity to test her new way of looking at the world. The class are all going to present short sketches at the end-of-term evening, and she asks Marlène and her best friend Clara if they'd like to be on her team.
At the show, cute Valentine is presenting... um... is it Snow White or Cinderella? There's a fairy godmother AND dwarves, so it's hard to tell. The audience boos them mercilessly. Then on come Lili, Marlène and Clara, dressed as the Three Little Pigs and with some wittily self-mocking lyrics. People kill themselves laughing and vote them the best act of the evening.
"I thought your Snow White was good too!" says Lili to Valentine.
"It was fucking Cinderella, stoopid!" says Valentine, in a lousy mood for once. "I just CAN'T DO drama!"
As Robin Williams keeps saying in Aladdin
: be yourself, Al!