TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:
"Front and Center" is the third and final book in Catherine Gilbert Murdock's "Dairy Queen" trilogy. While I absolutely loved the first book, in which high school junior D.J. Schwenk tried out for the boys' football team, I wasn't as enamored with book number two. "The Off Season" basically scrapped the entire (rocking!) football premise and placed D.J. at her ailing brother's bedside, where she realized her heart belonged only to basketball. Okay. "Front and Center" is a decent, mostly refreshing return to form, although it seems that in every book D.J. has to overcome the same near-crippling lack of faith in herself. Believe me, as charming as this book can be, a narrative consisting of almost constant self doubt quickly becomes tedious.
In "Front and Center," D.J. has just returned to school from injured brother Win's rehabilitation hospital. She's about to embark on her season as the star player for the Red Bend, Wisconsin girls' basketball team. Although D.J. is by far the team's best player, she still lacks the confidence to assume true point guard responsibilities, like calling plays and assigning coverage. Off the court, D.J.'s awkwardness and shyness persist, as if all the progress she made in the first two books has completely evaporated. She goes along with dating funny pal Beaner instead of true love Brian (the rival quarterback from "Dairy Queen"). There's just too much risk for pain in giving the much matured Brian another shot at her heart. Eh. Even worse, D.J. has caught the eye of two Division I women's basketball programs, yet she'd rather settle for a small, quiet Division III school where she'll never be pressured. She can't bear the thought of letting so many people down with a bad shot or game; instead, she'd rather avoid the whole potentially messy situation. And so it goes.
Like I said, 200 pages of self doubt, no matter how winningly conveyed by the open hearted, genuinely good, incredibly modest D.J., can be tough to get through. Thank heavens she's such a likable character, even with all her fears.
My other problem? I wasn't crazy about how so much of the action was filtered through D.J. — that is, described — rather than actually presented to the reader. D.J. essentially summarizes a karaoke party at Beaner's house, the Christmas holiday with her family, a trip to the University of Minnesota campus, etc., without letting the reader experience any of the nuances for herself. This tends to keep D.J. and her world a bit removed from the reader, which is a shame because, as I mentioned, she is such a sweet character.
The good news is that there is still plenty of sports action (here, basketball); some genuinely touching moments involving D.J. and Brian; and a long overdue message about believing in yourself and doing hard things, no matter how scary they may seem. Plus, the rural Wisconsin setting remains wholly authentic — and unusual! — as it's a nice change of pace from the glut of cosmopolitan teen novels out there. "Front and Center" is a fitting conclusion to the trilogy, and fans of the first two books will be delighted to find out how well things eventually turn out for D.J. If the road there is a little difficult at times, it's worth sticking around for the quietly emotional finale.
One final note: "Front and Center" is extremely clean, language, drug, alcohol, and sex-wise. In other words, even though D.J. is a teenager, it's suitable for much younger girls.