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T-backs, T-shirts, COAT, and Suit

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Give the unexpected a chance. That's the advice Chloe gets from her stepfather before she heads off to Florida to spend the summer with her aunt Bernadette. It turns out to be excellent advice, because everything about Bernadette is unexpected: her job driving a food service wagon, her big, slobbery dog, her Rollerblading skill, her unorthodox way of teaching Chloe to swim. But nothing is as unexpected as the war that erupts when the other drivers start wearing T-back swimsuits to work, and some community leaders mount a protest against the skimpy suits. Bernadette is caught in the middle of the controversy...and what starts as an innocent game for Chloe may just make things worse.

176 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1993

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About the author

E.L. Konigsburg

79 books1,123 followers
Elaine Lobl Konigsburg was an American author and illustrator of children's books and young adult fiction. She was the only author to win the Newbery Medal and a Newbery Honor in the same year (1968), with her second and first books respectively: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth. Kongisburg won a second Newbery Medal in 1997 for The View from Saturday, 29 years later, the longest span between any two Newberys awarded to one author.

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5 stars
62 (13%)
4 stars
157 (34%)
3 stars
171 (37%)
2 stars
54 (11%)
1 star
15 (3%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 45 reviews
Profile Image for Josiah.
3,211 reviews146 followers
November 25, 2019
Published relatively late in E.L. Konigsburg's career—though before she won her second Newbery Medal, for The View from Saturday, in 1997—T-Backs, T-Shirts, COAT, and Suit still features the spirited sort of main characters Ms. Konigsburg was always known for. Twelve-year-old Chloë Pollack isn't interested in hanging around her hometown of Ridgewood, New Jersey this summer. Her friends, Anjelica and Krystal, have irritated her lately with their fixation on physical appearance. Chloë's options for a summer vacation are limited, but her stepfather Nick suggests she visit his sister Bernadette in Peco, Florida. The choice is mostly an illusion, though; if Chloë wants to leave Ridgewood, staying with Bernadette is the only way. Nick thinks the two will form quite a connection once they get to know each other.

Forty-five and unmarried, Bernadette has a comfortable rhythm to her life and quietly insists Chloë not disrupt it during her time in Peco. Chloë is expected to wake up at 5:30 A.M. on weekdays and accompany Bernadette to work, where she drives a food truck for a commissary owner. Chloë assists Bernadette on the job, preparing orders for the hungry customers who buy hot dogs, sandwiches, and other simple meals from the truck. Bernadette has worked for Nick's commissary for seven years, earning assignment to the lucrative sales sector of Talleyrand, but this summer a new employee brings a problem Bernadette never had to worry about before.

Wanda has driven and sold food from one of Nick's trucks for months, but when her sister Velma joins the team, standards for employee behavior change. Velma wears a T-back on her route, an immodest swimsuit that lures red-blooded men to buy from her instead of Bernadette, who dresses conservatively and isn't as obviously attractive as Velma. Soon other employees come to work in T-backs, wanting to boost their sales, and Nick pressures Bernadette to join in as a show of "solidarity." Her sales have drastically dropped in the wake of Velma's hiring, and Nick reassigns Talleyrand to Velma. After years of exemplary work, Bernadette is relegated to one of the least profitable sales regions, a highway nearly an hour's drive from headquarters.

Chloë is indignant on her aunt's behalf, but Bernadette accepts the implicit demotion without a fuss. She's glad to still have a job, at least for now. As the T-back movement gains momentum, the local news station covers the story, and with the exposure comes public protests by a group called COAT (Citizens Opposing All T-backs). The shameful display of skin by the women wearing T-backs should be illegal, COAT says. The organization is headed by a minister and his wife concerned the swimsuits are an open invitation for men to lust. Bernadette rejects affiliation with COAT just as gently but firmly as she refused to wear a T-back, and soon she's in the middle of a legal battle. Tyler, a local thirteen-year-old who irritates Chloë but sometimes is almost a friend, has a foot in both the T-Back and COAT camps, but keeps his conflict of interest quiet so only Chloë knows about it. She has been trying to trick Tyler into believing that Bernadette's eccentric lifestyle is because she's a witch, but Chloë regrets her prolonged prank when Tyler looks to wield that information to get Bernadette in trouble with COAT and Nick, who would like a reason to terminate her employment. Can the T-back debacle possibly end well for Bernadette?

T-Backs, T-Shirts, COAT, and Suit is very much an E.L. Konigsburg novel, if not quite as clever as her work from the 1960s, '70s, and '80s. The themes of authoritarianism and witch-hunt culture are strong. When any group attempts to coerce everyone to think or act a certain way, accusing dissenters of immorality that must not be tolerated, freedom is under attack and must be defended or the culture decays. Even if the behavior the group opposes is bad, the only effective way to eradicate it is to change the culture from the inside out, not institute top-down tyranny. When you install the political apparatus for authoritarian intervention in the lives of private citizens, all you've done is ensure it will backfire on you as soon your ideological opposition is placed in position to use that apparatus. T-Backs, T-Shirts, COAT, and Suit is at its best when pointing out the flaws of authoritarianism, and I would round my two-and-a-half-star rating to three if the story were more cohesive. It's not a bad book, and most E.L. Konigsburg fans will at least like it.
Profile Image for Katie Fitzgerald.
Author 4 books201 followers
April 8, 2022
#40RereadsBefore40 Book 10

E.L. Konigsburg was a talented writer with some very strange books to her name. I'm a big fan from the perspective of someone who appreciates good, clever writing, but as a kid I was bewildered, and as a parent, I am wary.

T-BACKS, T-SHIRTS, COAT AND SUIT was published in 1993 when I was in 5th or 6th grade. I owned a paperback copy back then, but when the public library in my hometown discarded the hardcover a few years ago, I snatched it up at their bookstore and now it's in in our home library.

The only thing I remembered about the book going into this re-read was the ending, which made it sort of an interesting reading experience. The story is about Chloe, who goes to stay with her aunt, Bernadette, who drives a food truck. Some of her rival food truck drivers start wearing revealing T-backs to work, but though Bernadette supports their right to wear what they please, she refuses to wear one herself for reasons she won't explain. (Her eventual explanation is what I remembered from reading this as a kid, and it was so memorable precisely because it was too subtle and I didn't understand it.)

The story explores questions surrounding the limits of free expression and the dangers of compelled speech, which is good, but there was a weird anti-religious undercurrent running through a lot of it, and I wished we could have explored this topic without glorifying immodest clothing.

I gave the book 4 stars for my own enjoyment of Konigsburg's writing, but I'm not going to be offering it to my kids anytime soon. Other Konigsburg titles, yes, but this one... we can hold off.
Profile Image for Katrice.
214 reviews25 followers
July 13, 2014
A twelve-year old girl spends the summer in Florida helping her "mysterious" Aunt who runs a food truck. She gets involved in a modern day witchhunt involving what at first seems to be the morality police gone wild but then becomes an actual witchhunt when a few careless tales she spins about her aunt convinces some people she's a consort of the devil.

There are some interesting parallels here about identity and finding yourself and sticking up for your rights and the rights of other people but I find myself underwhelmed. Maybe its because the cause of the "t-backs" isn't exactly sympathetically painted either compared to the "Coat" activists. It seems like there could be a more interesting story in there or a more dramatic one but. . . I kept waiting for something to happen and nothing really does and then summer is over and were told she returns home a better persona and. . . that's it. No big denouement so it just felt flat.
Profile Image for Anna.
1,020 reviews8 followers
March 10, 2015
A wonderful story of a very perceptive young girl, who spends a summer working with her aunt. Chloe is a very precise almost detached teenager; intelligent and methodical. Bernadette is a former hippie who lived in a commune with her younger brother, Nick. Nick married Chloes mother and adopted Chloe. I love how so many misunderstandings about people in general, and these characters in particular, make life so challenging. this is a well written enjoyable story, and made me go look for more by this author
477 reviews22 followers
October 22, 2020
I liked this book. Lessons to be learned from history to now this really is still going on. 2020 is actually worse now then in 1992 when people really wanted to make statements.... This book shows how you can be persuaded to one thing or another all for the love of Fame or greed (money) and or power.... such a powerful book in little words. This is a middle grade book and you follow Chloe as she goes on a journey she did not know she needed. Chloe went to stay with her Aunt in Florida and the T-Back war and Christian war began, Chloe got to learn what looks good and when things are going right that there is always going to be something come up to make you think and learn, which by the end of summer Chloe learned a lot.. Recommend to young to old. Eye opening... Gina Clabo
Profile Image for Nancy.
2,406 reviews52 followers
July 1, 2017
I liked this and I learned something while reading it. A good story, good characters, and some interesting historical facts without bogging down the narrative. A masterful job of walking a fine line. Some interesting twists and a very satisfying ending.
Profile Image for Sara.
322 reviews4 followers
January 9, 2020
Interesting lessons are learned by a young 12-year-old girl as she spends the summer with her step-dad's sister.
Profile Image for Tory.
348 reviews3 followers
July 23, 2013
"Chloe read smiles the way some people read tea leaves or tarot cards. The most important thing she watched for was how it grew. Slow and twitchy were the two basic styles. Female salesclerks and office receptionists had twitchy smiles for twelve-year-old females. Dental hygienists, wonderful slow smiles; fast-food waiters, twitchy; actors playing fast-food waiters on TV, slow. Anchorpersons, two basic smiles: twitchy-twitchy when they were talking to each other and slow-twitchy when they were delivering animal stories." "Twitchy" is just such a great way to describe disingenuous smiles. The actor distinction and hyphenated anchorperson descriptions are just so funny because they are so apt.

"Chloe thought she would drown in her own sweat. It poured from her brow, from under her arms and belt, and from behind her knees. Tears blinded her eyes as she chopped the onions. Lot's wife was not as salty as she was. Neither was the Atlantic nor the Pacific. Between the sweat and the tears, she was being pickled in her very own brine." I know moments when I am saltier than Lot's wife and the ocean, but I have never thought of myself as pickled. Perhaps now I will - at least when I get back to the East Coast.

"The air was so humid that the backyard felt as if God had turned on a giant vaporizer for a world full of asthma sufferers. Everything was plumped out. Leaves that looked ordinary in Ridgewood looked as if they had silicone implants here." Oh, Florida. Land of both succulent plants and succulent silicone.

"Zack and Wanda, Tyler and Velma had not been company. They had been an invasion." Whew. I have had a few dinner party invasions myself. They most certainly are not company, but their armory is usually not tangible.

"Friday: Lionel, the one male driver-server on Talleyrand, showed up in a T-back. Lionel said, 'Equal's equal, and fair's fair.' The women shoved folded paper money into the strap of Lionel's T-back, and didn't ask for change. Chloe noticed that the men were not shoving dollar bills into the straps of the women's T-backs. She thought, if equal were really equal, they would." This exemplifies Konigsburg's subtle social insights. Why is one so much more socially acceptable than the other?
Profile Image for Abigail.
70 reviews6 followers
October 15, 2014
This was a rather interesting read, it involved hippies, lawsuits, and T-Backs which I now know are basically swimsuit thongs. This books takes place somewhere in the 90's and the protagonist, a extremely unwilling Chloe, gets to be the honored guest as law meets personal freedom. With a hippies aunt and odd dog, the story takes the reader though a journey that invites the reader to think of the consequences of actions, even actions many years ago and how things can often be different than they appear.

T-Backs, T-Shirts, Coat and Suit is a work that was an extremely unique work that would be hard pressed to be compared to any other work besides other E.L. Konigsburg works. With her unique diction the story that could traditionally be considered boring is told in such a way the reader feels compelled to keep going and trudge on. Personally, I was reading the work and felt almost guilty if I stopped because every new page seemed to hold promise as to what would happen next. The ending was quite satisfying yet somehow after finishing it, I felt like I had read something I really couldn't grasp, at least not completely. Why was Chloe so set on convincing Tyler that Bernadette was a witch? What on this planet causes girls to make a hair cutting contract? Are hippies truly immoral? Does the wearing of T-Backs really constitute a law to enforce people not wearing them?

From reading the work I felt that all parties were wrong with the exception of Bernadette and Chloe. Who was more right? This is one work that while it is a teen / young adult book, I feel like I need to ponder some of the questions brought up throughout the book. What was this book? I'm not sure but I know it wasn't about T-Backs.
Profile Image for Todd.
297 reviews20 followers
April 9, 2009
About girl who stays with her independent aunt for a summer. She (girl) is independent, quick talking and smart— she learns all kinds of lessons as she works with Aunt on food mobile. She finds out about hard work, feeling like a “3-in-one” (feeling a unit with aunt and dog), and personal rights as they all get caught up in a lawsuit when competition wears skimpy bathing suits to attract customers. Main thing is that the aunt, who is minus a breast from cancer surgery, has a right to NOT participate in the debate, and NOT answer accusations that she’s a witch. The book is way inferior to From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler in that it’s predictable and lacks punch, but the characters are well drawn and believable.
Profile Image for Emily.
607 reviews
May 29, 2010
This was an interesting book. It begins with a disclaimer about t-back swimsuits, and so if you are offended by T-backs I wouldn't recommend this book. It's about a girl who spends the summer with her step-aunt, in Florida. Unbeknownst to all parties concerned the step-aunt's work place is about to suffer a T-back revolution. It causes controversy all over town. It's a good book, just regular fiction. I don't think it's E.L. Konigsburg's best. By now you probably realize that I really like From the Mixed-up Files and The View from Saturday and don't care as much for her others. But what can I say? Throwing Shadows was good too. If you are looking for something different from what she usually writes this is a good choice.
Profile Image for Jeffrey.
819 reviews17 followers
May 9, 2013
I like how Konigsburg flips the map and has children coming to the rescue of adults rather than vice versa - visiting her Aunt Bernadette, Choe finds herself caught up in a food-truck war that centres on wearing what Konigsburg calls t-back (aka thongs) and being accused of being a witch. Kind of improbable - I can't imagine the health department not shutting down trucks where the servers are grilling burgers and making fries where the employees are wearing thongs! Still, here again is another book about secrets (something that Konigsburg tackles in such interesting ways) but I juts never really moved beyond being interested in this story - it's not a bad book by any means but just not one that truly engaged me as some of the other Konigsburg novels I've been re-reading have.
Profile Image for Ann Moody.
116 reviews11 followers
April 13, 2016
E. L. Konigsburg is a favorite of mine and I like her quirky and unique style. I like that her characters are tweenish types who are really at a point of development in their maturity and that she gives us a snapshot into the circumstances that shape that development.

This fits into her brand just fine. Twelve year old Chloe's experience during a summer where she learns to face the "unexpected" is plausible enough. Teaches a few lessons about hard work, empathy, friendship, getting caught up in unexpected turmoil, facing critics of all stripes, and learning that in the end you can't please everyone so you need to find peace in yourself.
Profile Image for Melissa.
800 reviews
September 3, 2007
It pains me to say this, because you know E.L. Konisburg and I are BFF, but this is definitely her worst book. It's not even bad in the "bad for this author, but still good in general" way... this book is just bad. The main character is unlikable, the teacher/mentor figure is also pretty unlikable, and the action is both convoluted & slightly ridiculous. I agree with the reviewer who wrote "who calls thongs T-backs?"--it took me three chapters before I figured out what she was talking about. The modern-day-witch angle that crops up just doesn't play well for me either. *sigh*
113 reviews
October 23, 2014
Great book - as usual per konigsburg. Thought provoking. Who sets dress codes? Who sets the cultural norms? Who has the 'right' to set decency laws/standards? What is the measure?

This is especially thought provoking in examining the Western bias/disdain for hijab and/or abaya and/or chador... what is modest? why is nudity not accepted and/or against the law fairly universally?

Is it OK to use sex appeal for sales? Is it a double standard?

How do the character's FEEL? How would you feel in the situation?

Another EXCELLENT book for basis of discussions...
September 21, 2010
This was an ok book. It was about how this little girl did not want to go somewhere but she had to. Then when she got there she went into Nick's house and he has a dog and she is scared of it and they want her to pet it but she doesn't want to because she is scared she will smell like dog for the rest of the time. Then finally she pet the dog and figured out that their dog was nice and was not going to lick her and it was ok to pet the dog.
Profile Image for Zhenhao Ren.
11 reviews
December 18, 2013
I think the author could improve on how COAT won the t-back battle because all it said in the book was COAT has won and t-backs have lost. It feels as if the ending was rushed because of the way the t-back battle ended and the book really seem to end at the part where Chloe talked to the layer Mr.Bayard about him defending Bernadette. The rest of the book feels like I'm reading the epilogue. Overall this book is good and it seems like a book for young adults.
16 reviews
July 3, 2012
I really liked this YA book. It deals with our history of going on "witch hunts" for power and monetary gain. It certainly would help a young person understand how the Salem Witch hysteria could have happened. As always with Konigsburg's fiction, it is well-written and has characters that you both love and hate!
Profile Image for Michael Fitzgerald.
Author 1 book49 followers
July 18, 2015
Presents a very one-sided negative view of religion, both in the depiction of the Bible-thumping, witch-hunting fundamentalists and in the overblown and misleading historical account of the Church's dealings with Galileo. The book appears to conflate these two into one big bunch of bad guys, with no balance.
Profile Image for Reader Girl.
747 reviews2 followers
February 12, 2016
If you're going to read Konigsburg, I recommend Silent to the Bone or one of her Newbery list novels instead of this one. Maybe it was too subtle for me, but I found T-backs to be rather boring and pointless. The writing itself was good, and the plot had potential, but I was surprised when the book ended because it hadn't gotten anywhere yet.
Profile Image for Sarah.
340 reviews
September 29, 2010
I didn't find E.L. Konigsburg until adulthood, and have since read nearly all her books. Her characters in her books are always funny and smart and figuring out something about the world or themselves. This book is no exception. It's on my book shelf as one to return to.

reread 9/10
441 reviews17 followers
December 30, 2012
I liked this book, but it's not one of my favorites in her extensive library. It's a little similar to The Outcasts of 19 Shyler Place, but not as good. 12 year old girl, coming of age trauma, weird relatives, funky social obstacle to overcome - but just not as good.
646 reviews
August 29, 2014
Sweet, as are all of Konigsburg's books. Realistic portrayal of the way adolescents think about themselves and the people around them, but I love reading about how people grow and learn more about themselves and the world.
Profile Image for Camille.
20 reviews1 follower
February 20, 2016
This is such a funny book. Great book for a quick plane ride or something for it is fairly short. I must admit that the beginning is a little weird but keep reading! It gets so much better as the story goes on.
Profile Image for Rachael.
154 reviews2 followers
July 5, 2008
On the whole, I am a big fan of Konigsburg. This book was a horribly boring exception.
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