Thirteen-year-old Diana Donato1 is very close to her father, who, like his father before him, runs Cinderella Cleaners in Weehawken, New Jersey. When they find themselves low on staff, it's decided that Diana should help out with the family business after school. Her stepsisters are too young to pitch in; her stepmother, Faye, too busy. Luckily, Diana finds friends in some of the other workers - and soon, she unexpectedly finds herself in a ball gown, attending a Broadway musical! Who wouldn't want to step into her shoes that night?
In each book in the series, Diana discovers, cleans, drops off, or creates (or helps create) a different article of clothing that leads to a fun little adventure. She crosses paths with (fictional) young Broadway stars, rock stars, cheerleaders, ballet dancers, and her peers, then makes it home in time for dinner. Well, most of the time, that is!
This good-natured series is kind of like Saved by the Bell2, with plenty of accidental-but-lucky breaks, but while Zack was a con artist (and I say that with love - see the footnotes below), Diana is a performing artist. An actress with an eye for fashion and a fondness for what ifs, she sees potential in people as well as situations. With her passion for acting, hope in her heart, and love for her family, is it any wonder that I think she's a great character?
These stories have a lot of heart. For example, in the first book, Diana wants to try out for the school play, Our Town, but because there was no way she could be in two places at once - rehearsals would be held at the same time as her work shifts - she gave up the play. Most middle school students will be able to relate to her attempts to to balance school, family, work, and extracurricular activities. Diana has a strong sense of obligation to her family and friends, so that even when she has to give something up in favor of something else, she may be sad, but she doesn't whine about it.
Likewise, even when Diana clashes with her stepmother, she respects her. There are many stories in which stepfamilies either magically blend together (can you say The Brady Bunch?) or they are completely at odds, but the family depicted here is more realistic: the kids don't hate each other, they tolerate each other; the adults are happily married; and the stepmother isn't evil, but she and Diana don't always see eye-to-eye because they have very different personalities and priorities.
The series is populated with a diverse cast, which is wonderful to see. Diana's best friend, Jessica Munson, is as fiery as her red hair. Diana, already 5 foot 6, sometimes feels like a giant next to her. Their next best friends, Sara Parvati and Amelia Williams, are soccer players. At lunchtime, the girls share food from their different cultures. I love picturing these four girls with different hair colors, skin tones, and body types all crowding around plates of curry, pasta, and burgers while talking excitedly about their weekend plans or their new class project. There are other characters who will hang out with them, too, such as Will, the boy who becomes Diana's friend (and maybe more) and Ethan, the confident guy who will probably be Homecoming King in a few years. Let's not forget Kayleigh, the rude girl who likes to one-up Diana whenever possible and wouldn't hang out with her if the world depended on it.
The staff at the cleaners is just as diverse: there's Nelson, the head tailor who is a talented young designer, complete with fedora; high school students Cat (short for Catalina) and shy Elise, the basketball player; Loretta and Sadie, the sweet, elderly tailors; strict, scowling supervisor Joy MacInerny, whom Diana secretly thinks of as Joyless; and, later, Lara, a young adult whose cool Russian accent doesn't sound as cool when she's echoing Joyless' orders. Nelson and Cat in particular are always willing to help Diana out with her escapades. It's great to see characters with such varied backgrounds interact, and for a teenager to have friends of different ages.
There are five books in the series so far:
1. Change of a Dress - in which Diana goes to a Broadway musical
2. Prep Cool - in which Diana visits a private school
3. Rock & Role - in which Diana tries out for a music video
4. Mask Appeal - in which Diana attends a masquerade ball
5. Scheme Spirit - in which Diana accidentally helps with the Homecoming parade
6. Swan Fake - in which Diana participates in a ballet
Cinderella Cleaners is recommended to ages 8 and up.
Check out my exclusive interview with author Maya Gold.
1 Diana is awesome. I wish I'd had her middle school experience. She's also cool without knowing she's cool. Her trademark? Wearing sneakers with one brightly colored shoelace in one shoe and another shoelace of another color in the other shoe. She would totally get along with Zibby Payne, the protagonist of Alison Bell's adorable series.
2 Saved by the Bell began as Good Morning, Miss Bliss, starring the fantastic Hayley Mills in the title role as a middle school teacher. They reworked the show, removing the teachers, keeping three of the students and the principal, bringing in new students, and moving the show from Indianapolis, Indiana to Southern California - but keeping the same sets.
But that's another story for another time. If I start talking about Saved by the Bell now, I'll be here for a while, and I really have to get to set now.
Not to the set of Saved by the Bell, though...but don't I wish!