Friday, April 29, 2011

Anna and the French Kiss

First of all, I know it's been a few weeks since my last post.  If you are wondering what I am reading in between posts, I am participating in two challenges this year.  I am reading in the YA Reading Challenge and, on my other blog, Picture Book Reading Challenge (for which the girls and I are trying to read 200 picture books/board books/readers).  I update those on a regular basis, even if I don't actively review them.

For some of you who know me and my reading tastes in real life, there will be no surprises when I tell you how much I loved Anna and the French Kiss.  After all, it has many of my favorite teen book elements in it - romance, friendship, and most important of all, boarding school!  In fact, when a librarian friend wrote to me about this book, she told me "This is a very Susan book!".  And it is - but it is so much more!
Anna Oliphant has been sent off to Paris for her senior year of high school .  Who wouldn't want to go to Paris?  Well, Anna for one.  She loves her life in Atlanta, with a potential new boyfriend, great friends, and a cool little brother.  Not to mention that she took Spanish the other three years of high school.  But her father, a Lurlene McDaniel-like author with a pen name, feels she must go there, and so she does.  She spends her first night at the School of America in Paris homesick and worried. 
The girl next door, Meredith, ends up taking Anna under her wing and introducing her to her friends.  Her group of friends are diverse and cool, including Etienne St. Clair.  One of the first things she learns about Etienne is that he has a girlfriend, so instead of falling in love with him (Anna tells herself) she'll just become his friend.

St. Clair (as the friends call him) and Anna have really strong chemistry.  I believe one of Perkins' strengths as an author is that she creates a believable, strong friendship between Anna and Etienne.  Because they have feelings for each other, they take time to get to know each other.  They spend time visiting all the landmarks of Paris, sitting together in class and learning about each other and their families and friends.  We learn about them, but also get to vicariously enjoy the sidelong glances, hands touching and all of the other signs that this friendship is headed towards romance.

Another thing that makes this novel work is its characters.  While the story revolves around Anna and Etienne, there are many strong characters surrounding them.  For instance, Anna's father is laughable - if he isn't your father.  He specializes in sappy novels, much like Nicholas Sparks or James Patterson.  Anna is embarassed by his novels, the movies made out of his novels and the way he talks to her.  Her father sends her an email telling her he will give her younger brother "her best" when he sees him.  He has arranged this year for the cachet it will give him as well.  Just imagine the author blurb on the back of his next novel, stating that his daughter is "studying in Paris".  Well...I've gotten a little off track here, but I really did love him in his awkwardness and awfulness.

While there is a romantic love story at the heart of this book, this is also a story of friendship.  When Meredith brings Anna into her group of friends, Anna has no idea how much they will shape her year in Paris.  With no French language skills, and coming into a senior class of 25, Anna could have spent the year very lost.  Her friends support her and help her learn her way around the city.  They translate breakfast menus, ticket orders - they help her without judging her or making her feel helpless.  But Meredith has had a crush on Etienne for a long time, and when Anna falls in love with him too, she has to work to maintain her friendship with Meredith.  The friends will all move in different directions as they (mostly) head off to college, but you don't get the sense that they will slip away from each other.  I like that Anna (and Perkins) doesn't emphasize the romance over her friendships.

At the end of the novel, you get the feeling that Anna and Etienne might actually make it - that their romance will last beyond high school and even as they grow and change in college.  To me, that is the mark of a great romance - you can believe in and envision these characters remaining in love as their lives develop.  This is Perkins' first novel, but I am excited to hear that she already has two companion novels in the works - one coming out later this year.  Who doesn't love a great love story?

Anna and the French Kiss.  Stephanie Perkins.  Dutton, 2010.
borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

Sunday, April 10, 2011


One of the things that I love about School Library Journal's Battle of the Books is that I've read things that I would not have read otherwise.  When I heard about Trash, it did not seem like my kind of book - I am not always an enthusiastic reader of books with teenage boy protagonists.  I rarely connect with teenage boy characters, so it has to take some special characters for me to get past that.  But this book was different from the first page.
Raphael and Gardo are sorting trash, on the top of a large mountain of refuse in a landfill.  Suddenly something slips out of a bag - a wallet with ID, a key and a substantial amount of cash.  To Raphael and Gardo, who live in the landfill in a sort of scrabbling, hand-to-mouth existence, the cash is most important.  But when the police come looking for that same wallet, Raphael and Gardo know they have unearthed something much more valuable than they first thought.
They enlist one other boy, a loner known as Rat, to keep their secret.  These boys have already kept the wallet a secret from their neighbors because of the amount of cash.  Raphael and Gardo know that cash makes them vulnerable in their dumpster society.  They could be robbed or killed over it.  In their neighborhood (called Behala), people never have any money at all - they mostly use recyclables or found trash to barter for food and supplies.  This is a bleak, hopeless society.  The adults in Behala are just barely surviving.  Raphael, Gardo and Rat, however, are still young enough to have a slim glimmer of hope.  And that is enough to allow them to set off on a quest to solve the mystery behind the wallet. 

Mulligan has created an incredible story.  These boys have nothing - no money, little family, even less education.  And yet they are resilient, clever, street-smart.  The three are able to get information because they have always lived by their wits, so they are observant and have perfected being invisible to the adults around them.  Perhaps only this particular group of boys would have this combination of daring and smarts that allows them to solve this mystery.  Most teen boys wouldn't be curious about the rest of the contents of the wallet, probably discarding them while keeping the cash.  Or they might have bowed to authority and handed over the wallet to the police when they came looking for it. 

This is an adventure story at heart, but it is combined with the mystery that unfolds in front of the boys.  At times, the action is heart-stopping - will the boys be caught by the police before they uncover a mystery that hints at political corruption?  Mulligan keeps the tension ratcheted  up at an unendurable level, and you wonder how these poor, uneducated boys can possibly survive.

One other unique thing about Mulligan's novel is the voices - each of the boys have chapters told through their eyes, and they all have very different ways of looking at this situation.  They all see each other's strengths and weaknesses, and work together as a seamless partnership.  It is truly miraculous that these boys have the wherewithal to not only survive their bleak upbringings but to hold out hope for a better life.

Trash.  Andy Mulligan.  David Fickling Books: Random House, 2010.

personal copy

Monday, April 4, 2011

Miss Lina's Ballerinas

I chose this book at our local library because I knew it would interest Frances.  Frances and her group of girl friends saw The Nutcracker in December, and are going to see a ballet production of Cinderella in May.  And while Frances would usually prefer to select her own books on our library trips, she agreed to this one right away.  It's easy to see why just from the cover - eight little ballerinas gesture gracefully at the framed title, all rendered in appealing shades of pink.

The plot and interior illustrations are equally appealing.  This is the story of the eight young ballerinas who spend their days at Miss Lina's school - Christina, Edwina, Sabrina, Justina, Katrina, Bettina, Marina and Nina (whew!).  They dance in four groups of two and spend the rest of their day in the same way.  From the zoo to the beach to their local grocery store, the girls dance joyfully through their day.  But then Miss Lina welcomes a new student (named of course, Regina) to their school, and the rest of the ballerinas are thrown off-kilter.  How will they solve the problem and continue to dance in step with nine ballerinas?

Maccarone has combined two important themes for young girls in this story - friendship and ballet.  Ballet language is used naturally within the text, and the girls are also shown executing the named steps.  At the end of the story there is a short list of the ballet terms with pronunciations (for unsure parents) and a one-word definition.  The natural combination of the terms within the text and the illustrations of those steps may spur interested readers to continue exploring ballet.  The friendship theme is also crucial to the young child - the eight original ballerinas are thrown off by the change and are not welcoming to Regina.  It takes a little guidance from Miss Lina to solve the problem and make the dance troupe successful.  There is also a hint of math for astute readers as the girls struggle to divide themselves into even lines.

One of the things I like best about this book is that it is a natural, infectious read-aloud.  The bouncy rhythm suits the characters perfectly.  Even just saying all the ballerinas' names (Christina, Edwina, Sabrina, Justina, Katrina, Bettina, Marina and Nina) starts you dancing along.  If I wasn't already reading it aloud, I would have grabbed my girls within the first few pages just so I could say the words aloud.  The lilting prose has strong end-rhymes, something I find important for a successful read-aloud.  It is hard to read a book aloud when the words either don't fit the rhyme scheme or the author has to use words that might not be the best choice because it rhymes.  None of that happens in this story.

The color choices in the book are also superb.  The pages' creamy color makes the ballerinas' pink tutus pop.  The color palette is striking and rich.  In one illustration, the dancers are shown at the zoo, and while the prevalent color is the green of the trees surrounding the elephant enclosure.  However, the ballerinas use the railing as a barre in the foreground, and your eyes are drawn to their bubble-gum pink dresses as they dance.  My only complaint is that the artist's medium isn't identified in the prefatory material, so I'm not exactly sure what she used to create these energetic illustrations.

One of the other things that I enjoyed about the picture book is its resemblance to Madeline.  After all, there are the young girls, dressed identically, dancing in straight lines.  There is the willowy dance teacher, guiding them much like Miss Clavel.  And the easy to read rhymes sing along, just like when you read Madeline.  It is a pleasant connection, subtle, but leaving a smile on your face.

We all loved this book in our family, and the girls' names have been a constant refrain in my head all week long.  Well-done, fun and perfect for any little girl in your life.

Miss Lina's Ballerinas.  Grace Maccarone; illustrated by Christine Davenier.  Feiwel and Friends, 2010.

borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library