Review: Monster High

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Monster High
by Lisi Harrison

★½☆☆☆

2011 (originally published 2005) • 272 pages • Poppy

Have I mentioned how much I love Monster High? Because I love Monster High. I have a passing but passionate interest in fashion dolls; I keep a lazy eye on collector grade Barbies, used to buy issues of Haute Doll, and I even went through a brief period in high school where I tried to save up six hundred dollars to buy my very own ball-jointed doll. When Monster High, a line of dolls meant to be the children of old-school horror monsters, debuted, I was delighted to find a technicolor parade of little monster girls in the toy department at Target whose flaws weren’t “being clumsy” but “actively trying not to suck anyone’s blood.”

What I like about Monster High, besides its nostalgic-to-me sugar horror/baby goth/alternative kid aesthetic and its commitment to truly, truly atrocious puns, is that it’s about teen girl friendship. (Surprise!) And not just in the vague sense that I recall from my own childhood Barbies. Monster High is not just a line of dolls—it’s a franchise, with music, a Flash animated web series, CGI-animated direct-to-DVD television specials, a movie musical that will supposedly come to pass, and, as we can see from today’s selection, a line of young adult books. I watch the web series and CGI specials from time to time, and I’m always impressed by how they emphasize the girls’ friendships over anything else. In one web series episode, Frankie (as in Frankie Stein) feels like she’s falling behind because she, unlike some of her friends, doesn’t have a boyfriend. She, naturally, creates a fake one in her dad’s lab and brings him to school, where her friends are quick to reassure her that she doesn’t need to date someone to fit in with them. (And then she chucks him in the garbage, which is when we discover she actually gave him sentience. Whoops.) Even the mean girl, Cleo de Nile, evolves over the course of the web series, from a stereotypical mean girl to someone who appreciates her friends and defends them.

So it’s incredibly infuriating that the first Monster High book (as of this writing, there have been two series: this one by Lisi Harrison and a younger-skewing Ghoulfriends series by Gitty Daneshvari) ends with two girls shaking hands over, essentially, a declaration of war over a boy. Barf.

Part of the problem is that Monster High doesn’t immediately translate to a book with high stakes—it’s about cute monster girls being friends, wearing increasingly outrageous outfits, and making terrible, terrible puns. Accurately describing the visual madness of Monster High would be a challenge for any writer. (I’ve been thinking a lot lately about visualization and prose; some mediums are just more immediately external and others are more immediately internal. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t capable of the other, just that executing it is more difficult.) To combat this, the Monster High novels follow Frankie Stein just after her creation and Melody Carver, a human girl who moves to town with her family from Beverly Hills. And it places, as the central conflict the fact that RADs (Regular Attribute Dodgers—i.e., monsters) need to keep hidden from human society. Frankie and her new friends see it very, very differently, and Melody gets sucked along for the ride when the cute boy she has a crush on turns out to be a RAD himself.

Using a strange, supernatural, or just uncanny group of people as an allegory for actual oppressed groups is always a tough, although often useful, line to walk in speculative fiction. Marvel’s mutants are usually the best application of that idea (“Have you tried not being a mutant?” is funny because it’s painfully true) and even that can wobble at times. In the usual Monster High canon (this is the point at which I gather the fandom young to me, tell them I am a very proud mama, and then they tell me I’m old), humans and monsters are on the verge of integration, so seeing Frankie and company help their headmistress (who is, of course, headless) try to promote integration is engaging while allowing for side stories. Here, though, monsters are totally under the radar for safety reasons, so seeing Frankie and company turn up at a monster-themed high school dance as themselves seems… dangerous.

This may be because, as we’ve established, I am now a Fandom Old, which renders me unfit for some of the fluffier young adult fiction. (Although Monster High as a whole is pretty fluffy and still manages to make some coherent, if very basic, points, like not judging people based on appearance and how cool undercuts are.) Plus, this book suffers from insta-dated syndrome, where up to the minute references to fashion, music, and pop culture immediately date a text as soon as it’s printed. It’s just a shame, because Monster High is really fun and unique in most of its incarnations—why can’t it be as a book?

I rented this book from the public library.

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