This young adult novel was recommended to me by a fellow teacher of reading workshop who said it was immensely popular in her room. I downloaded it on my Nook and began to read it late one night before bed, and stayed up all night to finish. I laughed on one page, clenched the covers in tension on the next, then cried, then laughed again, thanks to Portes’ masterful narrative skill.
The narrator, Annika, was a unique take on the typical YA protagonist, describing herself as the “third most popular girl in school,” whose Romanian father she calls “Count Chocula.” Still, Annika finds herself in a number of classic YA conflicts–torn between two boys (Logan, who is unique and thoughtful, but social suicide, and Jared, who is magnetically attractive and popular) and torn between two friend groups (Becky Vilhauer and her evil “mean girls”-esque clique and the victims of that clique’s hurtful gossip). Annika authentically struggles with these choices in a way I think most teenagers would, so this felt much more real than a John Green book, for example, to me.
As Annika’s unique voice kept me laughing and intrigued, the story grew darker, spiraling into a series of painful climaxes, as the book progressed. While reflecting on one of these situations, Annika writes:
We tried to be less self-involved. We tried to look up from our dumb obsessions and notice other people. We tried to be open, for once. We tried not to be just another vaguely racist family. We tried to be enlightened. We tried to be good. We tried to be all of the things…we are not.
This beautiful excerpt reflects not just on Portes’ cut-to-the-quick analyses of common situations, but also her writing skill. My students and I looked at that passage for craft and they created beautiful imitations filled with similar repetitive phrasings.
Portes’ beautiful language made me love this book, but I loved it even more when I read the afterword, which explained the inspiration for the book–Portes’ own high school experience. Once you read the heart-wrenching conclusion, you’ll understand why I so vastly admire Portes’ blend of autobiography and gorgeous writing skill.