Fuse #8

Monday, October 09, 2006

Review of the Day: The Road To Paris

Here’s a fun way to determine whether or not a book will make for a good discussion in either a classroom or a bookclub. First, read the book. Two possible choices now lay before you. If you finish the title and find yourself 100% perfectly clear on why every character performed as they did, that is not a good book for discussion. If, however, you do as I did with “The Road To Paris” and after finishing the book suddenly find yourself thinking and rethinking the book’s ending in a vain attempt to determine whether it was happy or sad, then THAT, my friend, THAT book has incredible promise. All the great classic books, from “The Giver” to “Charlotte’s Web” have that quality. Now “The Road To Paris” has it too, and I would not hesitate to thwap it soundly on the head with the CLASSIC stick. This is a good book. A good book that manages to talk about a serious, even depressing subject without dragging the reader down into the realms of misery. No small feat, to say the least.

“Ask Paris if a phone call can be deadly. She’ll tell you. She learned the truth of it last night.” For years, Paris and her older brother Malcolm have only had one another to count on. Though they’ve been taken from foster home to foster home, Paris can still remember and be hurt by the memory of their alcoholic mother. So when Malcolm and Paris escape the latest abusive home to stay with their grandmother, she’s unprepared for the horror of being separated from Malcolm after all these years. Paris has been sent to live with the Lincolns, a kind family who've dealt with foster kids before. It takes a great deal of love and understanding on their part to break through Paris’s wary shell so as to convince her that she is finally safe. But when a phone call comes from her real mother telling her she can come live with her again, Paris must decide what “home” really is.

Reviewers seldom comment on the length of a children’s book, unless they happen to be dealing with a 700+ page fantasy tome (or, as the book industry calls them, “the norm”). I, however, would like to point out that “The Road To Paris” stands at a handsome 153 pages. From this length, we may understand that Nikki Grimes does not stand for overwrought flowery speech. Her language is remarkably beautiful, as much in what she doesn’t say as in what she does. When, for example, you read right at the beginning that, “In the world of Paris Richmond, normal was rare, and rich”, those words weigh heavy on the page. Descriptions abound and they aren’t there to merely fill up space but to give the narrative itself a three-dimensional quality. There is a moment where Paris sees for the first time in her life her neighborhood buried until a thick covering of white powdery snow. “Paris thought it was a shame to disturb all that perfection, but she planted her bots into the snow, one step after another, creating a trail of fat footsteps even the man in the moon could see...”

Ms. Grimes also has the remarkable ability to preach without sounding preachy, if that makes any sense at all. In this book, Paris finds God. Early into her foster care stay with the Lincolns, her new foster brother David tells her that he combats fear by keeping “God in my pocket.” Later, as Paris grows emotionally strong, she holds fast to her belief that God is with her, even in the most unpleasant of circumstances. Some authors wouldn’t be able to write any of this without making the book into some kind of didactic sermon. Instead, Grimes balances out the good with the bad, allowing the reader the chance to decide for themselves whether or not Paris’s faith with help or hurt her in the future.

Until I read this book the only Nikki Grimes title I’d ever read was her Coretta Scott King Award-winning, “Bronx Masquerade”. Honestly, I didn’t like “Bronx Masquerade” very much. I thought the characters used too much contemporary slang that would grow outdated very quickly, thereby making an otherwise well-written book a relic before its time. “The Road To Paris”, in contrast, could not be more different. First of all, it’s difficult to say when exactly this book takes place. It could be in the past or it could be next week. It features a foster care system that performs in a believable fashion, sometimes making a situation better (for Paris) and sometimes making a situation worse (for Malcolm). The language doesn’t have a drop of soon-to-be-outdated slang anywhere, and nobody goes about yammering into the latest cell phone or iProduct. I hate to drag out that overused word “timeless” to describe “The Road To Paris” but the book leaves me with very little choice in the matter. How else am I going to describe a story that feels this real and, I know, will continue to do so for years to come?

Name five children’s chapter books written by and about African-Americans in the year 2006. Go on. Name ‘em. If you can’t do it, and I know that you can’t, then we have a problem. Nikki Grimes is an amazing writer but publishers would do very well to know that she can’t do it alone and she needs some company. If “The Road To Paris” doesn’t find itself included on every single Best Children’s Books of the Year list for 2006 then you’ll know something is terribly awry. One of the smartest titles to come out this year, to say nothing of its bravery. I won’t tell you the ending of this book, for obvious reasons, but a co-worker of mine recently commented that adults and children will have very different reactions to Paris’s final decision. Consider this a great title for discussion and contemplation. A book worth remembering for a long time to come.

Notes On the Cover: It seems to me that the people making the editorial cover decisions on this book had a very difficult task ahead of them. Here you have a book that could either be historical fiction or a contemporary novel featuring a mixed-race African-American girl with blond hair. I’ll tell you right now that Paris’s blond hair kind of threw me for a loop. I didn’t now how to picture her in my head, so I looked to the cover for guidance. G.P. Putnam’s Sons would have known that I’d do that too, so the designer of the cover, Kristin Smith, and photographer Marc Tauss played out the image with surprising dexterity. First of all, we see a girl wearing a shirt that could exist in the past, present, and future without too much stretching of the imagination. She’s carrying a bouquet of lilac flowers, just as she is at the beginning of the book. Now here’s where it gets clever. The lilacs are in focus, but the rest of Paris is shot through a kind of foggy sunfilter, rendering her hair a non-color. It definitely could be blond, and if so it doesn’t look at odds with her dark skin in the least. The overall effect is that it faithfully represents a book that couldn’t have been easy to present cover-wise. Yes, it chops the girl off right above the nose (making this disembodied children’s book cover girl #458) but all things considered I’m going to give this one a pass. Excellent excellent work.

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