Friday, April 8, 2011

Review - "Clara Lee and the Apple Pie Dream"

As soon as I heard that Jenny Han was releasing a book for early middle grade readers, I did a little dance of joy at my desk.  A new Jenny Han book is always going to be a reason to celebrate, but a new Jenny Han book branching out into yet another age group?  Super celebration time.  Han’s Shug is one of my favorite coming of age books for older middle grade readers, and her YA Summer series (The Summer I Turned Pretty, It’s Not Summer Without You, and the forthcoming We’ll Always Have Summer) is just as successful, and a series I feel comfortable handing to just about any teenage girl.  Han’s newest title, Clara Lee and the Apple Pie Dream is written for young chapter book readers, and introduces a new character in the adorable Clara Lee.
Clara Lee goes by her first and last name together, because they just sound good that way, “like peanut butter and jelly, like trick-or-treat, or fairy and princess”.  She’s a Korean American third grader, living with her parents, her younger sister Emmeline and her beloved Grandpa.   After a bad dream that Grandpa tells her actually means Good Luck, Clara Lee thinks she just might have enough courage to enter the Little Miss Apple Pie contest, where the winner gets to ride on a float in the annual Apple Blossom Festival parade. 
It’s a simple story, with a simple goal, but gone about in a very relatable way.  Clara Lee’s belief in her Good Luck makes you smile, even while you wish she would believe in herself as much as she does her luck (which of course, she eventually does).  Her desire to be Little Miss Apple Pie is grounded in part by her desire to be “as American as apple pie”.  Han handles this combination of Clara Lee’s Korean self and her American self in a sensitive way that is easily understood, without feeling reductive or overly simplified.
The best thing about a Jenny Han title is the way she gets inside her characters’ heads.  I’ve never read an inauthentic word coming from a Han character, and I don’t think I ever will.  Her girls are real girls, with real thoughts and motivations and a real, honest quality that I find disarming.  Clara Lee is no different.  She’s a charming girl, but has her faults, as any real third grader does.  She finds her little sister annoying.  She’s rude to her parents when she’s in a bad mood.  She has fights with her friends.  But she also knows the value of a good apology, and the wisdom of her Grandpa.  I loved her, and Julia Kuo’s illustrations made me want to reach out and pinch her little cheeks.  She’s that cute.  I certainly hope that this is only the first in a series for Clara Lee, because I think there are more stories to tell and more adventures to be had.  I’ve said before that Lenore Look’s Ruby Lu has earned a place on the shelf beside Ramona, Junie B. and Judy Moody.  Well, there’s a new girl on the block, and I think she’ll fit right in.
Clara Lee and the Apple Pie Dream by Jenny Han
2011, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Library copy

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