Charming as a Verb by Ben Philippe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Charming As a Verb was such a cute little gem. This is the second YA novel written by Haitian writer Ben Philippe that I’ve read. As I said in my review for The Field Guide to the North American Teenager, “we’re not dealing with gang/street violence, teen pregnancy, [or] drugs. That’s not the only experience of Black teens.” Once again, Philippe writes about a high school teen boy on a quest to attain #BlackBoyJoy.
In the case of protagonist, Henri Haltiwanger aka “Halti” that joy will come in the form of acceptance to Columbia University, his dream school. Or is it really the borrowed dream of his Haitian immigrant father Jean? Like most parents, especially immigrant parents, Jean makes the sacrifice of pausing his own dreams to provide a better life for his family. He works as a janitor/maintenance man in a swanky building in New York City in exchange for room and board in a small, cramped apartment. The lackluster apartment is a source of shame for Henri who doesn’t even allow his best friend Ming to come over. Ever.
Ming himself is an interesting character. I loved him almost as much as Henri. He’s a Chinese adoptee of rich, white parents. Though they provide limitless credit cards in lieu of a weekly allowance, they can’t provide firsthand knowledge of his roots and culture he desperately craves. As such, his dream school is halfway across the globe in the “motherland” where he plans to immerse himself in Chinese culture. Ming is very much an American teen in his obsession of video games, and sneakers. He loves sneakers as much as Henri, who reads all about them and would like to design them.
College acceptance to one’s dream school is the theme of the novel which continues with Corrine Troy. Not only is she a rich girl in Henri’s building, but a fellow Haitian-American classmate at FATE Academy, a very “woke” school. The two are stark opposites in that Henri is popular and a star on the debate team, while Corrine is known for being an “intense” loner. They know of each other, of course, but their official meet-cute happens when Corrine’s mother hires Henri to be a dog walker. Unbeknownst to all the rich New York clients who hire Henri, he’s the founder, owner and sole employee of his dog walking business, which he launched to earn money for college. He knows his firefighter-in-training mother and janitor father won’t be able to foot the bill. Thanks to some sleuthing, Corrine uncovers the truth of the business and threatens to expose Henri unless he takes her under his tutelage to gain entry into the in-crowd.
I enjoyed reading Charming As a Verb. Henri’s charm lies in his varying smiles which he carefully contemplates before flashing in different situations, especially when he’s in hot water. Of course, as an adult, some of the problems that arise throughout the novel seem easily solvable, or even avoidable, if the teens simply asked for help or talk things through. But what fun would that be to read? Making mountains out of molehills is exactly what the teen years are for. It makes it that much sweeter for the characters when everything works out in the end, even if not as originally planned. Let’s hear it for some #BlackBoyJoy.
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