Twelve-year-old Apple Yengko and her mother immigrate to Chapel Spring, Louisiana from the Philippines when she's in elementary school. Things aren't great, but once Apple hits middle school, what had been mild curiosity or indifference on the part of her fellow students turns to vicious bullying and ugly American behavior belittling her cultural and national heritage.
Her story really is a study in how you don't want your middle school students to behave. If they're in need of a mirror, teachers, read this as a class.
A clique of boys, in particular, create twin lists of girls -- a list of the "ugliest" girls in school and the equally despicable "Hot" list of the ...ugh, I can't say it -- and Apple winds up number three out of 10 on the ugly list. Her kinda best friend turns into the Wicked Witch of the West in an attempt to distance herself from Apple and put herself in the corner with the barking and howling boys who created the gross lists.
Apple teams up with another girl on the ugly list, and a boy recently transferred from (enlightened) California, to learn to stop caring about what others think and make her own (musical) way. She finds an unlikely ally, the girl at the top of the other list, who by virtue of being on top becomes a target for others to topple.
But first Apple must get around her mother's dislike of music. Inspired by her deceased father's mix cassette tape of the Beatles, she listens and watches others play guitar and checks out books on how to play guitar. She gets a guitar from the music teacher, and learns a few songs by ear. She discovers he's teaching another girl on the ugly list how to sing, and at the Califas boy's urging, they join together to practice.
They end by performing on the playground and drawing a large crowd to loud applause and a newfound appreciation of their developing skilz that drowns out the chatter of the ugly Americans still present and trying to bully her.
It's a thoughtful read, but one some kids -- and their parents -- may need.