Analyzing the cover: Here we meet our brave heroes and heroines for the next 20 some odd books. My best crack at who’s who: Top = Walt, Nancy, Olivia; Center = Angie; Bottom = Mary Ellen and Pres.
We are introduced to what will be our main characters in at least the first half of the series on the first day of Tarenton High cheerleader tryouts, where they agonize internally about their life decisions and what has brought them here.
Mary Ellen Kirkwood (who will sometimes be referred to as ME since I’m lazy) is a veteran cheerleader but is painfully insecure about her chances of securing a spot on next year’s squad. That makes everyone at tryouts her enemy. ME has bigger plans for this world, ones that involve getting the heck out of Tarenton and becoming a fashion model in NYC. She thinks she is beautiful, but NOT sexy.
Vanessa Barlow is a straight-up beyotch who is the superintendent’s daughter and thus gets everything she ever wanted (someone should bring this up at the school board meeting) – so Mary Ellen assumes that will include a spot on the cheerleading squad. Since the squad only consists of 4 girls and 2 boys (I’ve NEVER seen a squad so small in my life, was this an 80s thing?), knowing at least one spot will go to Vanessa by default makes ME feel stabby. “Considering the possibility of homicide made Mary Ellen feel infinitely better.”
Nancy Goldstein is, according to Mary Ellen, “nothing but sexy,” so she’s probably next on ME’s hit list. One of the few Jewish students at her school who moved to town less than a year before, Nancy wants more of a social life that doesn’t include going to the city and participating in her temple’s activities for youth. Cheerleading will be the key, she thinks. While Nancy is sitting around lamenting the fact that she has no friends, she eyes a girl named Evie. “Evie was a pretty girl, but she was fat.” Don’t worry, Nancy doesn’t completely fat shame Evie in her mind – she gives her credit for being courageous! “If I looked like that in gym shorts, Nancy thought, I’d die before I went out in public.” Lots of thoughts of murder and death within the first few pages of this book.
Angie Poletti is also a veteran cheerleader. It’s made clear that she’s not exactly beautiful, but her sweet and genuine nature make people see her as attractive anyway. Yay for Angie.
Preston Tilford the Third is a bored, rich ladies man (he drives a red Porsche) who just doesn’t know what to do with himself. Heir to Tarenton Fabricators, the Chamber of Commerce, and the United Fund Drive, he first laughs at the idea of being a cheerleader. But because he is a “poor little rich boy” whose father is always giving him ultimatums, Pres decides to join the squad to piss off his dad.
Walt Manners is the lone male veteran cheerleader left at tryouts, son of local TV show talk show hosts and an overenthusiastic clown. I can’t really get a feel for Walt in this book. Sometimes I get the vibe that he may turn out to be suicidal or something.
Olivia Evans is a year younger than the rest of the hopefuls (15), trying out as a sophomore. Her mother is overbearing, because Olivia had a heart defect as a young child. Olivia is pretty boring.
Another key character is Patrick Henley, who is not trying out for cheerleading but crashes practices because he’s in video recording class or something, which is filming part of the tryouts. He is obsessed with Mary Ellen, who treats him like crap – even though she is insanely attracted to him – because he’s just a garbage collector with his father. ME is poor too, though. She tries to hide her family’s condition as best she can. She makes sure to go to the laundromat early Saturday mornings while all the rest of her classmates are surely still sleeping. “She would just as soon get caught using drugs as the laundromat.” She has to settle for drinking “cheap, generic apple juice” over soda because she can’t afford it (Shouldn’t cheerleaders practicing be drinking like, water? Gatorade?) So she pretends not to like soda.
So of course she wouldn’t deign to date a guy like Patrick. You know, someone funny and sweet and hard-working.
As tryout practices continue on, we see ME continue and try to resist Patrick (while giving in and making out with him a few times) and show interest in Pres solely because he is rich, Nancy making friends with a fellow cheerleading hopeful named Susan, Vanessa cementing herself as a villain, Angie crushing on some random guy who was refilling the vending machine at the gym, and Olivia fighting off her mom’s over-protectiveness.
Vanessa makes snide comments about Evie for her weight, and Nancy, who wasn’t thinking much better thoughts earlier, tells Vanessa to knock it off. “Vanessa,” said Nancy sharply, “go chew on a hand grenade.” Was that a line in Heathers a couple years later?
Meanwhile, Nancy goes on a double date with her friend Susan and Susan’s boyfriend Jimmy. Nancy is infinitely grateful someone has acknowledged her existence. They see Vanessa and Pres in line at the movie theater and a brawl almost breaks out. Pres is like the Bruce Patman of Tarenton.
The day of the first round of tryouts arrives. Vanessa’s mom is one of the judges! Seriously, who would allow this for real? But it doesn’t matter, Vanessa was too sure of herself and didn’t practice enough, so her tryout is mediocre and she doesn’t make the semifinals! Her mother makes a scene and claims that the judges were extra hard on her daughter just because her mom was a judge. Oh, the humanity. But then stupid Susan suggests they let Vanessa be an extra semifinalist, and for some reason, everyone agrees.
This is followed by a weird scene where the guys ride into the gym on motorcycles. ME can’t contain herself and jumps on what she thinks is Pres’ bike. They ride away, but when they stop and he takes off his helmet, it was Patrick all along. ME continues to treat him like the garbage he picks up, berating him in front of Walt and Pres. It seems Pat has finally had enough of her BS.
After the final round of tryouts, the Varsity squad is announced: Walt, Pres, Olivia, Angie, Mary Ellen, and Nancy. Suck it Vanessa! But don’t worry, our villain will be back.
After the squad is named, some future storylines get set up briefly:
- Nancy meets a guy named Rick and starts dating him immediately, but Mary Ellen knows he has a girlfriend away at boarding school. ME decides to keep this info to herself for some reason.
- Angie calls and asks out vending machine guy and he says yes.
- ME makes out with Pres in his Porsche (score) but then he blows her off for Vanessa. She runs into Patrick and kisses him on the street (she kisses people A LOT, almost as much as Pres!), but he’s not sure what to think. Run like you’re on fire, Patrick. You are too good for this moron.
- The squad votes for Mary Ellen over Walt as captain, and Walt realizes he doesn’t care but haughtily imagines the squad embarrassing themselves when they perform as a team for the first time. Oh Walt.
- Olivia continues to be pretty boring.
Sign of the Times (Anything noticeably 80s mentioned in the book):
- “Susan expertly parallel-parked her Pinto” (aka death trap).
- The cheerleading coach is Ardith Engborg – what a name!
- An interesting description of cheerleading is given – “Claps, foot motions, finger snaps, and syllables mixed with an intricacy that defied learning.” Okay.
- Sometimes people call Mary Ellen “Melon” and she hates it. It’s a food. So domestic.
- ME has a weird thought about Patrick – “The moment her eyes focused on his, she blushed even redder and dropped her eyes to the mouth that was half sex god, half Kermit the Frog, and she was knocked off her feet by his presence.” Uh, say what? Was Kermit a sex symbol in the 80s? Is Mary Ellen Miss Piggy in this scenario?
- We of course have the resistant parents declaring that cheerleading is nothing more than a “sexual display,” while others insist it’s hard work and nothing short of a REAL sport.
Author: Caroline B. Cooney
Next time on Cheerleaders… How will Vanessa get revenge? Read Cheerleaders #2, GETTING EVEN.