Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Review: Vive la Paris

This is a review with spoilers.

Esmé Raji Codell's Vive la Paris is a book that sneaks up on you. (I need a term for this. Somehow "sneaker" doesn't sound right.) What I mean by this is that Vive la Paris reads likes a nice, polite, upper Middle Grade novel until two-thirds of way through and then: slam! An unexpected philosophical point--one kids will understand through the protagonist's behavior and its aftermath--takes Vive la Paris in surprising directions.

Paris McCray is one busy fifth grader. She heads up a reading program at her school, complete with mimeographed newsletters. She has lots of friends and four older brothers. Music is an important part of her family's life and she takes up piano, studying with an elderly neighbor, Mrs. Rosen. And, of course, Paris has an enemy. Another fifth grader, Tanaeja, likes to beat up Paris' older brother, Michael, which is embarrassing to say the least.

Michael is a charming kid who prefers baking to sports. He's charged with accompanying Paris to her piano lessons and before long he's singing to her music. Both children become close to Mrs. Rosen, a lonely Holocaust survivor who really takes to her young students. When she learns Paris knows nothing, and I mean nothing, of the Holocaust, she feels inspired to show Paris her tattoo and share with her artifacts from her history, including the yellow star.

This is where the novel takes a turn I found so surprising and really new. Paris is a strong narrator. As the youngest child with four older brothers, she's a smart, tough, popular girl. She knows what she wants and says just about anything without fear of retribution. So, when she shows up to school wearing Mrs. Rosen's yellow star on her sleeve, other kids in her class mimeograph yellow stars writing in the names of relatives who've died or the names of brothers serving in Iraq. Needless to say, Paris is finally, publicly very, very wrong.

When she's called into the principal's office and her parents summoned, the principal tells her "ignorance is not a defense." When Paris doesn't understand what this means, Mom reads her the riot act:

  • "''Didn't you hear that teacher? There comes a time when ignorance is no longer an excuse. Ignorance is the fire that burns the cross. Your ignorance.' Mama whirled around. 'People died, Paris. People wore that star and died, the way people wore our skin and died.'"

I like to be surprised, and Vive la Paris surprised me. Vive la Paris is highly recommended for kids ages 9-14.