Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Pesticide for the lily complex

I'm sick of Christmas, so it's time for a review in honor of Kwanzaa! Sweet Thang, by newcomer Allison Whittenberg, wins the prize for most infuriating brat of the year. Tracy John, Charmaine Upshaw's little cousin, is a "turtle-necked, corduroy-pants-wearing, angel-faced little creep," but he's so adorable that no one believes Charmaine when she says he's a devil child. Plus, his buttery skin reminds Charmaine how dark she is, and, as she puts it: "the joys of black were not distributed equally. The near-whites like Tracy John and Dinah hogged them all" (59).

The babysitting scenes between these two are as funny as anything in a TV sitcom. My personal favorite is the time Charmaine is driven to stab Tracy John with a pen.

The romantic subplot is admittedly predictable: Charmaine crushes on the "African Greek God" Demetrius, but he prefers the light-skinned Lena Horne-look-alike, so Charmaine finally realizes he's using her to do his homework and switches her affections to a less attractive but more socially conscious classmate. But do tween girls ever really get sick of that plot?

Besides, the focus of the story is Charmaine's change-of-heart toward her cousin, and that transformation is more complicated and 100% in character.

The book has lots of other perks, too: funky 1970s patterns, homey dinner table conversations, and Charmaine's cutting ovservations. Oh, and Kwanzaa! As Charmaine prepares to emcee the Kwanzaa festival at her church, she makes personal connections to the principles of the holiday. And it's only a leeeeeeeeetle bit preachy. And you can forgive an author for wanting girls to get the moral of the story, right? Not to oversimplify things, but there are already too many girls out there trying to attain bizarre standards of beauty.

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