Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!
Here's one of the infrequent middle grade novels we review here on this site; I chose it because the main character is a.) adopted and b.) Cambodian - just like my sister. She would have laughed a lot over this ten years ago.
Synopsis: Eleven year-old drama-queen Dara Palmer is convinced that Miss Snarling (actually, Snelling, but close enough) hates her, for serious. She never chooses Dara for any of the school play leads, and this time, when they're doing The Sound of Music - a weird old play based on a movie nobody's even heard of - Dara doesn't get a part at all. She has a sneaking suspicion it's because she's Cambodian - and clearly, Maria in the movie was Austrian. Except, there are kids of all shades in the play this year - all shades, from deep brown to lighter colors - so maybe it's just that Miss Snarling just... really ... hates Dara?
It certainly CANNOT be because Dara can't act.
Dara PRACTICES pulling faces in the mirror, just so she'll always have the right "Surprised!" "Grieved." "Horrified!" expressions. She's imaginative -- to the point of constantly daydreaming about her convertible, her Oscar, and her famously rich lifestyle in someday California. She's obsessive about her TV - yanking the remote away from her little sister and imitating voices and inflections, so hers will be just right. From the tops of her dark-haired head, to the spangles on her tutu, Dara is sure she'll be a star. She's just got to figure out a way to a.) grow up, b.) make it through school without dying, and c.) make it through home without killing her little sister, Georgia.
Dara's self-absorbed certainty of her own amazingness takes a hit in this brightly doodled, creative novel, which should appeal to the bouncier young readers of your acquaintance. In addition to all of the drama surrounding the school play, a friend and fellow Cambodian adoptee, Vanessa, decides to take the long trip back to Cambodia, to reconnect with where she's from. Dara is shaken by this -- isn't it enough for Vanessa to be English? Should they even be talking about their country? What if it upsets their English Moms? But Vanessa insists on exploring those deep-down-don't-talk-about-it feelings she feels -- which makes Dara realize that she not only has those feelings herself, but that those feelings are real, important, and won't go away. Dara realizes that, despite all of her trying and trying to BE an actress, be a star -- and be English, she is what she is - brown, Cambodian, and only a Palmer-by-adoption who maybe can't act. What she has to discover is if that's good enough... and if not, what she can do about it.
Observations: Dara is one of the frothier main characters I've read in awhile; totally in her own head and very happy not to actually interact with The Rest of the World. She learns and changes and grows, of course, but the beginning of the novel may be challenging for some readers who find "silly" unsympathetic. I found Dara's growth to be unexpectedly poignant, as she tries to understand why her sister Georgia is so unlikeable, by trying to put herself into Georgia's shoes and understand her. She fails - because her own shoes are so much cooler - but the real moment of growth is realizing that Georgia is inoffensive, and that Dara's her sister's worst problem.
There's a timely portion of the novel which will spark off some good conversations with readers. Dara is star-struck and dying to act. There's a great deal of talk in the media just now about the paucity of roles for Asian American actors, and when Dara suspects that it's her Cambodian-ness which stands in her way, she goes looking for representations of Asian actresses and actors to hang on her wall. She finds very few are in films she's ever seen, and the search is harder than it should be. What she chooses to do about this is typically Dara - but a great example of the need to be the change we seek.
Conclusion: Filled with onomatopoeic representations of the dramatic feelings any young actor feels, as well as squiggly doodles and interesting typography, the irrepressibly dramatic Dara will connect readers to her dramatic, empathetic, and thoughtful little world.
The author reads from her book - hilariously.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After July 5, you can find DARA PALMER'S MAJOR DRAMA by Emma Shevah at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!