Author: Kristen Kittscher
Genre: Middle Grade, Mystery
Publisher: HarperCollins Children’s Books
Publication Date: June 2013
Hardcover: 368 Pages
Best friends and seventh graders Sophie Young and Grace Yang have made a game out of spying on their neighbors. On one of their midnight stakeouts, they witness a terrifying, bloody scene at the home of their bizarre middle-school counselor, Dr. Charlotte Agford (aka Dr. Awkward).
At least, they think they do. The truth is that Dr. Agford was only making her famous pickled beets! But when Dr. Agford begins acting even weirder than usual, Sophie and Grace become convinced that she’s hiding something—and they’re determined to find out what it is.
Soon the girls are breaking secret codes, being followed by a strange blue car, and tailing strangers with unibrows and Texas accents. But as their investigation heats up, Sophie and Grace start to crack under the pressure. They might solve their case, but will their friendship survive?
Perfect for fans of The Mysterious Benedict Society, The Wig in the Window is a smart, funny middle-grade mystery with a REAR WINDOW twist.
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in the Young and Yang series
How did I get this book: ARC from the Publisher
Format (e- or p-): Print ARC
Why did I read this book: Both Ana and I were hooked by the middle grade mystery premise, so when the author approached us about her blog tour, we were thrilled.
Sophie Young and Grace Yang are twelve years old, next door neighbors, and best friends. Even though they don’t go to the same school (Sophie goes to the local public school while Grace is homeschooled and attends Chinese School on Saturdays), Young and Yang are inseparable and have a penchant for playing detective. When Sophie and Grace sneak out at midnight to spy on the mysterious goings-on of Charlotte Agford (the scarily artificial guidance councilor at Sophie’s school) the duo stumble across a real-life, big-time case. As Sophie and Grace uncover more clues and delve deeper into the Agford mystery – one that involves lies, scandal and murder – the danger facing the intrepid pair of spy-detectives mounts. It is up to these two friends – and their newest friend, Trista Bottoms – to crack the case and get to the truth.
Wow. It’s hard to believe that The Wig in the Window is Kristen Kittscher’s debut novel because believe me when I say this book is fantastic. Part spy-mystery (in the vein of a young Nancy Drew), part contemporary middle grade novel about friendships, change and consequences, The Wig in the Window is a smart, fun read that is as powerful as it is witty.
In other words: I LOVED THIS BOOK.
The most compelling part of The Wig in the Window, to my mind, were the fantastic main characters. For all that this is a well-constructed mystery with twists and danger galore – more on that in a bit – the soul of this novel rests with besties Sophie Young and Grace Yang. I confess to having a bit of a best friend crush on Sophie and Grace – their friendship is painful at times, prickly at times, but ultimately one full of love and raw emotion. The entire book is filtered through Sophie’s point of view, so perhaps as readers we are a bit more biased towards Sophie’s range of emotions, but I loved the genuine and balanced way Young and Yang’s friendship is portrayed. Sophie is the more earnest and quieter member of the duo; she tends to keep her head down and play by the rules, but is inevitably swayed by the charismatic and powerful personality of her best friend. In contrast, Chinese American Grace Yang is the cool girl – she has her own awesome sense of style, a passionate fixation with eventually joining the FBI one day, and a tendency towards the dramatic. (It is Grace’s idea to spy on Dr. Agford that gets the pair into this mess in the first place.)
The relationship between two young best friends (especially on the verge of teen-dom) is something to which many readers can relate – and Grace and Sophie have their share of misunderstandings and miscommunications. Sophie is frustreated by Grace’s need to take credit for things and upstage Sophie at every turn, but simultaneously admires Grace’s assurance and effortlessly cool sense of style. We don’t really get to see what Grace is thinking, but its clear that Grace is jealous of Sophie, too – because Grace is stuck and bored with homeschooling, and (in my opinion) is scared that Sophie is slipping away and finding new friends. Sophie frequently covers for Grace and takes all the risks, meanwhile grows resentful of the fact that she must always take the risks and face the consequences. At the same time, while Grace seems always to be taking, she realizes that Sophie can’t always be taken for granted and comes through in the way a best friend should. For all her bravado, Grace is every bit as vulnerable as Sophie, and I loved seeing this vulnerability play out on the page.
I think many people will be intimately familiar with the relationship between Grace and Sophie – I certainly remember a best friend from middle school who was so freaking cool, who I loved and wanted to be like, but at the same time who perhaps wasn’t as good a friend to me as I was to her. On the flip side of that, I also empathize with Grace, feeling like everything is slipping away and trying to convince myself that other people don’t matter. What I guess I’m trying to say (in the most bumbling, meandering way ever) is that the relationship between these two seventh-grade friends feels entirely whole, relatable, and genuine. It’s a relationship that is painful to read at parts – in particular, there’s this ONE part with a big fight and ouch – but it’s one that I think will ring true for everyone (pre-teens all the way up to adults).
I’ve gone on at length about the nature of Young and Yang’s friendship, but please indulge me in one more important point of tension in their relationship, that I want to make sure is singled out. Sophie is fascinated with Chinese culture, passionate about everything from feng shui to tai chi. She also frequently quotes Sun Tzu and Chinese philosophers, much to Grace’s frustration. This brings up the sensitive topic of cultural appropriation – and I confess that when I started this book, Sophie’s references to the flow of energy in her room and her raw passion for all things Chinese bothered me. That said, I need not have been bothered, because Kristen Kittscher tackles the issue of cultural appropriation head-on. In that ONE painful fight scene, Grace (who is Chinese American, mind you) explodes at Sophie:
Grace jutted her chin forward. “I know more than you ever will. It’s who I am. You never get that! Are you any less Irish because you don’t know anything about the life of Saint Patrick? How would you feel if I was always spouting off stories about Irish faeries and dressing like a leprechaun while I danced jigs? I can’t believe I’ve put up with it for this long. And your Mandarian accent sucks, by the way.”
At the same time, Sophie isn’t made to feel BAD about her fascination with Chinese culture and it’s clear that she is coming from a place of genuine interest and passion. (Much like, say, a young Caucasian middle school girl might be fascinated with manga to the point where she takes up Japanese and emulates what she knows of Japanese culture in her speech, dress, and actions.) It’s hard to walk the line between appreciation and appropriation, both in fiction and media, but also in real life. I don’t think I’ve come across a book that handles this tension as beautifully as Kristen Kittscher’s Wig in the Window – so, as Agford would say, brava, Ms. Kittscher.
Also, one more word on the characters: Trista Bottoms. WOW. What an amazing, wonderful character. I’m so glad she will be joining Grace and Sophie in future adventures because man I love her spunk, her sass, and her self-confidence.
So, what about the mystery, you ask? I’m happy to report that The Wig in the Window also excels as a middle grade sleuthing novel, complete with plenty of twists and turns and a truly unpredictable ending (I sincerely thought the book was going a very different direction!). Granted, the mystery angle – which indeed involves murderous villains and secret identities – is a bit hard to swallow at first, but in my opinion Ms. Kittscher pulls it off. I don’t want to say too much for fear of spoilers, but nothing is quite what it seems.
I only have a few niggles when it comes to the book as a whole – the voice for the characters felt a bit older than the average twelve-year-old (although I am so glad the author made no attempts at slang), and I wish there had been more parental involvement in the story with Sophie’s family in particular (rather conveniently, Sophie’s mom and dad are absent for most of the novel as they are working on a big project launch). Also, Sophie doesn’t quite have to pay for the full consequences of some of her actions (her slipping grades, for example – although you could argue that she’s paid for quite enough by the novel’s conclusion!).
These are minor nitpicks, however, in what is truly an awesome and memorable book. I loved The Wig in the Window wholeheartedly, and cannot wait for more Young and Yang. Absolutely recommended, and solidly in the running as one of my Top 10 Books of 2013.
Additional Thoughts: Reading The Wig in the Window is like being reacquainted with an old friend – this book TOTALLY reminds me of favorite MG mystery novels that I had forgotten about until now! In particular, The Pencil Families by Susan Terris & The Dollhouse Murders by Betty Ren Wright. Not that The Wig in the Window has much in common from a story perspective, it reminds me of being in elementary school and devouring these MG mystery novels. THIS is the kind of book I would have loved so much as a tween, and one I wholeheartedly recommend to young readers.
Make sure to check out our interview with the wonderful Kristen Kittscher HERE!
Rating: 9 – Damn Near Perfect
Reading Next: Son by Lois Lowry
Buy the Book:
(click on the links to purchase)