The Story: [from GoodReads:]
Full of regret, Cinderella’s wicked stepmother, Flora, has founded the Fairy Tale Reform School with the mission of turning the wicked and criminally mischievous into upstanding members of Enchantasia. Impish, sassy 12-year-old Gilly has a history of petty theft and she’s not too sorry about it. When she lifts a hair clip, she gets tossed in reform school-for at least three months. But when she meets fellow students Jax and Kayla, she learns there’s more to this school than its sweet mission. There’s a battle brewing and she starts to wonder: can a villain really change?
My Take: When I first read the premise for this novel, I knew I had seen it somewhere before, namely The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainai. I had been sorely disappointed by that novel and feared the same fate for Flunked. However, much to my surprise and delight, Flunked was everything I wanted The School for Good and Evil to be as it certainly did not fail at being an entertaining read.
Flunked introduces readers to Gilly Cobbler (who also serves as the principle narrator), a young thief whose pick-pocketing ways have finally caught up with her. While Gilly steals so she can sell her purloined items and give the money to her poor family, her parents and the law see things differently. Hence, she is sent away to Fairy Tale Reform School, which is run by Cinderella’s formally wicked stepmother, Flora. Flora, as it turns out, has seen the error of her ways and seeks to help re-educate other would-be neer-do-wells. But Gilly isn’t exactly willing to lay aside her mischievous side just yet.
I can totally see middle grade girls loving this book thanks to its plucky protagonist and rapid-fire pacing, though there’s nothing here that’s so abjectly juvenile that adult readers can’t enjoy it, too, as a quick, light-hearted read. Gilly is a pre-teen who is sassy, spunky, and fun but does her best to help her family. The reform school setting is akin to Hogwarts in a way but doesn’t try to be a rip off. The professors who teach at the school are also enjoyable members of the cast and, again, retain their own personalities and motivations as opposed to just being Potter clones. Granted, anytime you have a middle grade school-based fantasy story, such comparisons will be inevitable. But for me, Flunked did its best (and succeeded) in being its own story rather than a copycat.
Flunked also excelled in character development and world-building. The story world builds upon established fairy tales but morphs these to create a realistic, workable environment (in this case, the land of Enchantasia). It reminded me slightly of the kingdom of Far Far Away (from the Shrek films) in that we see a chiefly urban environment populated by cleverly-named shops, fairy tale persons and creatures, and catch a glimpse of the tiers of society. As it turns out, Gilly and her family exist on a bottom tier thanks to their insufficient income, and it’s this that causes Gilly to feel she needs to assume a life of petty crime. As she moves from the ranks of social outcast to reformed (or is she?) neer-do-well, we see how the school is structured and operates, from dance lessons taught by an absentminded sea witch to a nosy magic mirror. Yet all the while, none of these elements come across as phoned in or trying too hard – they fit of their own accord and develop the novel’s story beyond just a simple fill-in-the-blank fairy tale retelling.
Similarly, the characters are a blast! Gilly’s sassy ways (and mouth) offer a humorously sardonic take on her world. Likewise, her school chums are a delightful lot, namely the boisterous Jax; the perky fairy Kayla (who I kept picturing as Crysta from FernGully: The Last Rainforest); and Maxine, a kindhearted Troll who isn’t exactly proud of her monstrous heritage. The professors are all adaptations of infamous fairy tale villains, from Snow White’s Evil Queen, to the Big Bad Wolf, to the Sea Witch from The Little Mermaid. However, despite being villains, I loved how these notorious persons were presented in a positive light, showing how they had changed from their wicked ways. However, a fairy tale wouldn’t be complete with an actual villain and we do get that here, though what I enjoyed most was learning about one character who is secretly working with the villain but for an understandable reason. That’s all I can say without unleashing spoilers but it’s a surprise worth reading.
Plot-wise, Flunked is fairly straightforward and there aren’t too many twists and turns though there is plenty of adventure. It’s not entirely predictable (as there are some surprises) but, once more, I sense middle grade girls will devour this. I (an adult reader) enjoyed it, too, but I could tell this wasn’t intended to have a complex plot. But, actually, that was okay. Nothing about the story as a whole annoyed me or struck me as blatantly predictable; plus I knew this was a book chiefly for middle grade readers, so from that perspective, the plot accomplishes what it needs to do. As a whole, this is a light-hearted novel that put a smile on my face and made me laugh, so despite its basic plot, it was still entertaining.
That’s not to say this is a simplistic story. I appreciated the fact that the novel tackles (in a non-preachy way) that everyone deserves second chances. However, the question remains of what people who have been extended a second chance actually do with said second chance. Some of the characters here make the best of it and prove they’re not bad at heart while others essentially thumb their nose at the chance to redeem themselves. It isn’t hammered home but the message is clear: everyone deserves a chance to prove themselves and right their wrongs as well as rise above their station in life. And for that, this novel succeeds in presenting a surprisingly thoughtful tale that effectively entertains.
Language – None.
Violence – Minimal. What violence there is occurs sporadically and without blood or gore (instead it’s in the action-adventure vein where it’s more perilous than violent). Also, though Gilly and a few other characters display bad attitudes and habits at times, a few change their ways and become good while those who don’t amend their wrongs receive their just desserts.
Sexual Content – None.
Overall, Flunked is a fun novel on its own as well as a good series kick-off. If you’re looking for fairy tale-themed stories that aren’t centered on sordid love affairs or try to reinvent the proverbial wheel (or if you, too, were a bit let down by The School for Good and Evil), then give this novel a try. While its plot might seem basic to adult readers who enjoy more complex stories, it’s still tightly structured, nicely paced, offers some fun surprises, and delivers a good dose of genuine humor and heart.