Astrid has just finished grade 5 and is enjoying summer with her best friend, Nicole. Astrid and Nicole are in the backseat of a car looking dubious as Astrid's mom takes them out for an "evening of cultural enlightenment." Flashbacks show the two girls laughing at a poetry reading, sound asleep at an opera, and looking at modern art at a museum with question marks over their heads. When they end up in a building that looks like an airplane hanger full of dyed hair and tattooed bodies, the two have no idea what is up. When the program starts and the Oregon City Rollergirls show up to compete against Portland Rose City Rollers, Astrid is hooked on roller derby. Nicole, on the other hand, is not. She finds it scary to which Astrid replies, "Geez Nicole...you can be such a baby sometimes." Making friends during the teen years is not easy and often riddled with insensitive or unkind comments between peers. Later Nicole talks about wanting to sit next to boys and it is obvious that Astrid could care less. The author foreshadows the problems the two will have with their friendship from the get-go.
Humor is sprinkled throughout along with other subtle messages about society's pressures on women to be thin and stereotypes of the mean, aggressive derby player. When they go out to eat, Nicole, who wants to be a dancer, asks for a salad because her mom told her to watch her weight. Astrid gets a burger, fries, and shake. You go Astrid. Later, when Astrid is with Nicole driving from a roller skating rink, Nicole's mom laughs at her for wanting to go to roller derby boot camp and says she is not "...what I call a big bruiser type." The implied message that roller derby is only for women that like to fight is counterbalanced by the kind encouraging notes sent by Astrid's derby hero, Rainbow Bite.
When twelve-year-old Astrid tries to roller skate she's spectacularly bad. She can't even put her wrist guards on correctly. This universal message of passionately falling for a sport, choosing a hero in that sport and envisioning yourself a star, and discovering that you really are not that good is something many experience. But Astrid never gives up and she keeps practicing. When she makes friends with another girl who gets the position Astrid wants more than anything, Astrid has to learn what it means to be a team player. These are lessons that apply on or off the sporting arena.
Astrid finds out from another girl, Rachel, that Nicole is going to dance camp, and is ticked so she does what most kids might do - she bikes back and forth in front of Nicole's house doing nothing. Nicole comes outside and the two talk about it and when Astrid finds out that Nicole has no interest in derby camp she is confused. Then when Nicole accuses Astrid of never asking her what she wants to do she feels bad. Astrid is not sure how to process all this, so she suppresses it. Instead of talking to her mom, she lies and says she is getting a ride with Nicole and her mom from the derby camp. Once practice starts Astrid ends up walking or roller skating home alone. Astrid's wishy-washy teenage mentality comes across as authentic. Jamieson nails Astrid's character with thoughts that are not too advanced for her age and shows a young mind that is unsure of what decisions to make with changing friendships.
At camp, Astrid is one of the worst players. She makes friends with Zoey and the two help each other get better. Astrid has some tough practices that end in tears, but she sticks with it and the team supports her along with the coach. After one particularly bad day one of her teammates said that she barfed on her first day of practice. As Astrid learns more skills and grows in confidence all the while keeping everyone on edge as she is slightly out of control with her skating. Her coach teases her for giving her "daily heart attacks". Astrid doesn't feel mentally tough and is intimidated by the older girls so she decides to dye her hair blue thinking that will help.
Astrid needs to accept herself, find her identity, and roller derby is one way to do that. When she and Zoey are talking and Zoey says her nickname at school is "drama girl", Astrid says her nickname is "ass-turd". Then she thinks about how no calls her that anymore and that she is known as "Nicole's best friend." She is trying to figure out her identity and it no longer involves Nicole. She thinks blue hair will give her a new nickname, "blue-haired girl". Astrid doesn't tell her mom that she and Zoey are dying her hair, just like she hid from her that Nicole wasn't at camp. Astrid is independent and wants to figure things out herself. Her mom is pretty understanding and lenient, but does have clear boundaries. She tells Astrid she has to dye it back to normal when school starts.
Again, the message is that appearances determine how others look at a person and it also shows how adolescents do not have much control in their lives. Astrid's mom and Nicole's mom influence their daughter's choices and sometimes they don't give them a choice. When Astrid's mom takes her shopping and buys her a very young-looking lucky charm outfit, Astrid feels like a "demented leprechaun" and jokes about her luck on the day of practice. She gets teases a bit by others but it shows that her mom still sees her as a young girl and not on the brink of becoming a young woman. The author captures this awkward phase not only from the protagonists point of view but the parent's as well.
*spoiler alert* I think I'm getting worse at explaining a book and giving away too much. Sorry. Don't read on if you don't like to know too much plot.
The illustrations shine and add many more emotions than found in the text. Astrid has gotten in a fight with her new friend, Zoey, and is full of anger. She jokes that her "black period" is like Picasso's "blue period" (she learned that from on an "evening of cultural enlightenment"). The illustration has her framed in a portrait with a black heart and a scowl. When Nicole helps her out and lies to Astrid's mom, Astrid is not sure about Nicoles's motivations and has a nightmare where all her friends, Zoey and Nicole, and her not-friend, Rachel are at the upcoming roller derby competition tossing food and drinks at her calling her names. Rachel has a camera and the speech bubble says, "Smile for the yearbook, ass-turd!" Yikes. Astrid plots ways to get revenge at Nicole and Rachel's dance recital. At roller derby practice things go wrong and she accidentally hurts Zoey. Problems continue to snowball as her lies ensnare her and her mom finally finds out. I laughed at the pictures of her punching her teddy bear that she sleeps with in bed.
When her mom comes to talk to her about being disappointed, she expresses her fears that Astrid's lying will escalate into making future bad choices like skipping school, smoking, or taking drugs. She moans that she doesn't know her anymore. Astrid's responds, "Well maybe I don't know who I am either!" The author captures a girl turning into a teen and trying to figure out who she is in the world. Astrid explains to her mom that she didn't tell her about Nicole not going to camp because she didn't know what was going on between the two of them. Astrid isn't sure if they will remain friends and the loss makes her wonder who she can identify with when she starts middle school in the fall. Astrid doesn't get in trouble or grounded and winks at the reader giving a thumbs up and advice to talk to your mom about mixed-up teenage feelings to get out of tight spots. I gave Astrid a thumbs-up back. Slap on your rollerblades, this is one darn good book.