Sunday, October 09, 2016

Let the Eggplant Wars Begin! Isabella for Real by Margie Palantini

Saturday, 10:21 a.m.
Scene 1/TAKE 1
Attic Bedroom Closet

Can an eleven-year-old go to jail for fibbing, faking, and personality perjury? Just wondering.


Scene 1/Take 3


Yes, she is me. Guilty. All four syllables.

He/him/him/he: Vincent. My cousin--my almost brother--who, by the way should never ask me to help him with anything again.

It's complicated.

It is. Isabella's college film-school cousin had recruited her to play the central character in some videos featuring her colorful Italian Jersey family. Isabella assumes these are class assignments and being a bit of a ham herself is happy to help. Little does she know he also uploads them to YouTube, where Isabella and her extended family's funny vignettes go immediately viral!

Now Isabella is about to begin sixth grade at the rather elite private Fortier Academy for Young Women, definitely different in poshness from her elementary school--Merciful Sisters on the Mount of Small Blessing. With her rich Aunt Kiki footing the tuition, Izzie is highly hopeful of establishing a new and more sophisticated image, but that hope looks iffy when she meets three typically cosmopolitan students, Oakleigh Lawson-Ng, Anisha Patel, and Emory Easton, who show an unexpected interest in her soap opera diva Aunt Kiki (a.k.a. Francesca Franchelli, the Contessa).

I spun around and saw three girls with perfect hair, perfect teeth, and perfect unbitten nails.

"Bonjour," they said.

It was going to be harder for me to fit in than I thought.

"Boon? Bone?... Uh, Ciao," I sighed finally.

"Hear that?" said the shoulder-tapping girl. Before I knew it I was surrounded by a trio of Madelines.

"She said Ciao! Told you it had to be HER! You are, aren't you? Isabella Antonelli?

Oakleigh whispered. "We've been wondering, what exactly do we call the daughter of a countess?"

Instantly, Isabella realizes that the girls are confusing her mom with her glamorous Aunt Kiki, former star of the long-running but lamentably discontinued daytime drama, Search for Truth, Lies, and Love, and that her home must be the opulent Italianate mansion portrayed in Vincent's film set. Isabella is filled with confusing emotions. She loves the sudden acceptance at school that her Contessa connection brings and tries to explain her relationship with some fuzzy fibs to her welcoming clique of popular Earl Gray-sipping friends. But oh, what a web we weave, as Izzie finds out as she is forced into more and more not-so-little white lives to keep the in-crowd trio's friendship piqued.

At last Isabella has got herself way in deep, and the posh preppies are clamoring for a meeting with the Contessa herself. Panicked, Isabella plies them with authentic Eggplant Parmesan purlioned from her eccentric Aunt Ellie and Aunt Minnie and stalls for time until she and her sympathetic cousin Frankie (not Frankie the cat, as we are frequently reminded) can persuade Vincent to film another video in his elaborate mock-up set of the Contessa's salon and persuade Aunt Kiki to make a comeo appearance to reinforce Isabella's new persona. It doesn't help that her Academy buddies self-reinforce their take on the whole faux affair, now gone viral on Youtube. Izzie's real house, a two-story frame house in an average neighborhood becomes part of a media frenzy surrounded by satellite press trucks. Isabella and the helpful Frankie are forced to clamber down the antique rose trellis (formerly Aunt Kiki's teenaged escape to adventure) to flee the paparazzi and try to salvage what is left of her at-jeopardy reputation at Fortier Academy.

Just be yourself, especially when she's not sure which self that is, is a tall order for Isabella Antonelli in this first book in the proposed Eggplant Wars series, Margie Palatini's Isabella for Real (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016). Palatini is a veteran writer of hilarious picture books, and this fast-moving tale of a Jersey girl in the process of a self-makeover is only a bit far-fetched for the average middle school story, and middle readers who are trying to transition into a more mature image in their next school will right away recognize the all-too familiar pressures of moving on up.

Told in three streams--cleverly paneled comic-formatted pages by noted artist LeYuen Pham, flashbacks in which Isabella recalls how things got so complicated, and real-time first-person narratives combine to create a realistic look at an eleven-year-old trying to deal with her quirky, if comic, family and her own self-image as she moves out into a wider social setting, especially when complicated by her various identities in the ubiquitous social media world. It's a very modern middle school story with lots of laughs and a bit of a cautionary premise for readers just entering into their new milieu.

Palatini's forthcoming book is a great choice for the crowded middle school novel shelf and a worthily comic feminine-focused companion to James Patterson's best-selling Middle School, The Worst Years of My Life series (See reviews here).Isa

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