Harry Potter's J. K. Rowling is the hottest children's author in the United Kingdom, but Jacqueline Wilson, with more than 50 novels to her credit, is no slouch as second-hottest. Readers aged 8-11 are attracted to Wilson's realistic situations, characters and dialogue, and they appreciate a good story with a quick pace.

Bad Girls addresses subjects near and dear to most middle-schoolers: scary bullies, best friends and embarrassing parents. Ten-year-old Mandy is beset by a trio of bad girls who conspire to make her life a complete misery. Mandy's loving but clueless parents are no help at all. Then, Tanya moves next door. Tanya is all Mandy is not: older, tougher and cooler, and Mandy instantly idolizes her. These attributes, plus Tanya's status as a foster child with a police record, make Tanya the baddest girl of the lot. Her qualifications may frighten off Mandy's tormentors, but they also inflame Mandy's mom's overprotective instincts. Mandy's loyalties are torn between her new friend and her smothering parents.

The situation comes to an abrupt end when Tanya is sent away to a children's home. Once again, Mandy is alone.

Although she is learning to rely on her own strengths for protection and peace, she does get help from several unexpected sources, including a new teacher who leads a class discussion about bullying. Mandy's class her stalkers included start to see the bully and bullied with new insight and compassion. So do readers, of course. By extension, this new compassion should cover the geezer parents and kids from the unlucky side of the tracks, too.

Nick Sharratt's small, cartoonish illustrations are ideal for the author's light touch. They seem casually strewn, punctuating the text with the immediacy and truth of preteen marginalia.

Wilson's deft treatment of "ordinary" tough problems and her clear, quick stories continue to win the admiration of many fans. Look for her other books, especially The Suitcase Kid, The Lottie Project and Double Act, winner of the Smarties Prize and the Children's Book of the Year Award.

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