Adam Bagdasarian’s first book, Forgotten Fire , was a finalist for the National Book Award and won a slew of other awards along the way, garnering the distinction of being one of the Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults in 2000 by the American Library Association. Now, Bagdasarian has released a second book, entitled First French Kiss (and other traumas) , a collection of short pieces that recount episodes from an imaginary childhood.
Partway through the second piece, I realized that something was dreadfully wrong. The book was written with the saccharin idealism of a child but with an older narrator looking back on this time of childhood, which provides a subtext of irony, but no real narrative wisdom, so to speak, to put these episodes into some larger perspective. Furthermore, the more I read, the less these “pieces” seemed like stories. They seemed more like anecdotes, the kind of cartoonish, exaggerated slices of life that are told at parties or around friends.
This is a very hard book to pin down. Put out by Melanie Kroupa books, who is a children’s book editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the book is not listed on Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s website and Melanie Kroupa books does not have a website. The book itself does not have a listing for category, and the description alternately characterizes these pieces as “stories”, “tales” and “episodes.” The Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data summarizes the book this way: “The author recounts humorous, sad, traumatic, romantic, and confusing episodes from a fictional childhood.” A few library and pre-publication websites listed the book as for a “middle-school” age and for “young readers” but then went on to assert that they were for adults, too. I guess the themes of the stories are supposed to have universal appeal, even for older readers.
The problem is, of course, that writing for a younger audience necessarily entails a more accessible writing style. We don’t have the brilliant separation of child / adult that we would have, say, in a story like Alice Walker’s “The Walker Brothers Cowboy.” Let me say, unequivocally, that this book is for younger readers. I don’t know why it is being marketed so ambiguously, unless to try and make it a crossover or breakout book, which it is not. Why not say “early teen” on the book? Why not add that designation to the Cataloging-in-Publication data? There is no way that this would be a book that an adult reader would buy, nor would it be one to recommend to adult friends. It would, however, be interesting to hear the author read from these pieces: I suspect that the lively prose and the feel of these pieces as childhood anecdotes would go over well with an audience.
Let’s look at the book more from the perspective of a younger reader. The themes of these pieces do reflect events that happen in a young male’s life: first make-out session, getting yelled at by your dad for not eating your vegetables right, moving, and getting in a fight, to name a few. And there are some funny passages, like this one, in which the fictional Will discovers that making out is more difficult and clumsy than he imagined:
Around this time I began to wonder how long we had been kissing. I knew I did not have a chance of breaking the record, but I wanted to make at least a respectable showing; so while we made noises together and turned our heads interminably from side to side, I determined how long ten minutes was in seconds and began my long count to six hundred.
A book like this could make you realize, as a young person, that you are not alone in the world, that others feel as you do, and for this point, this is a good book. There are petty sibling fights, unfair parental judgments, and a sense of time passing with your having little control over it. This book does show how we grow into adulthood with very little control over how time changes us. We do the best we can with what we have and trust that goodness will prevail. The prose, though highly idealistic, is written in a way that would challenge younger readers to contextualize words they’ve not heard before. For younger readers, as well, the brevity of the pieces would be engaging.
In short, this would be a good book for a middle school reader, and for that audience I recommend it. Don’t believe the hype, though, about it being a book for adults as well. It’s not.
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