The Queen Bee and Me – Gillian McDunn, Bloomsbury, 2020
If you think that the queen bee metaphor for mean girls has been exhausted for middle grade readers, Gillian McDunn’s new novel may change your mind. Meg Garrison is a kind, nerdy, and sometimes anxious preteen, in thrall to her best friend, Beatrix Bailey. Meg is in a constant state of trying to maintain her equilibrium by anticipating which of her preferences or her momentary impulses at independence may upset their relationship, one which, to the reader, seems to be less than rewarding. Yes, Beatrix is wonderfully accomplished and her family is wealthy and influential in their small town, yet, like the queen of the hive, her controlling nature never allows for truly reciprocal affection. McDunn avoids simplistic moralizing and the reassuring message that, in the end, the worker bees will thrive. Instead, she presents nuanced characters who struggle with finding their place in the ecosystem of family and friends.
Meg is smart and inquisitive, the kind of girl who likes learning about the mechanics of things; she has “a jumpy kind of brain.” Her mom has devised a rule for making sure that this positive quality doesn’t wreak havoc on their home: “You have to ask first. You can never touch anything that is still plugged in. And anything you take apart, you have to put back together.” Beatrix is a graceful dancer and an all-around model of perfection, the kind of girl who organizes other girls in watching the boys play. Then Hazel, a new girl, moves to their community. She has a single mom, and singular sense of style, and a proud defiance of conformity in all its menacing forms. When Meg decides to take a science elective along with Hazel, leaving dance class to Beatrix, the queen bee goes to any length to ensure that Meg learns a lesson about obeying the queen.
Beatrix’s behavior is chilling, but McDunn conveys her deep insecurity not through exaggerated examples, but everyday consistent proof of her callousness. (One incident involving embarrassing Hazel with a gift of acne medicine is truly awful, but completely within her character’s norms.) Meg’s parents are a counter example to the values which Beatrix has assimilated at home; they support her unconditionally, although her understanding mother at times projects her own childhood traumas on Meg, even failing to trust her daughter’s judgment. No one in this novel is perfect, and emotional growth, just like in real life, is more possible for some than for others.
McDunn expertly weaves the bee theme into the narrative without belaboring the similarities between drones and insecure kids, queens and rich girls. Hazel’s obsession with bees leads to a science class partnership with Meg, who needs to confront her own fears of the insect, but also to negotiate the ups and downs a more mutual relationship. Secondary characters match the subtleties of the main ones: Ms. Dupart, the empathic science teacher; Hazel’s practical and independent mom, Astrid; Mr. Thornton, the kindly literacy teacher who is sometimes overpowered by the determination of his students to turn on one another. By the book’s conclusion, Meg has succeeded in putting things back together, but there are still loose pieces for readers to contemplate. Returning to the bee hive model and Meg’s project, “they beat their wings to cool the hive….they flex their muscles to create warmth…They need one another to survive.”