When a tragedy or change strikes a family, sometimes the kids will grasp at whatever sense of stability they can. Novels for youth may include foster children and the kids of divorcees grasping at everything from saving Redwood forests to becoming the lead in the school play, as long as it means concentrating on something outside of their own misery. To the best of my knowledge, however, I’ve never seen a middle grade novel where the main character went in for noir cinema. Dani Noir does just that though. First time novelist Nova Ren Suma presents us with a sympathetic if not entirely charming protagonist. Bound to create plenty of discussion, if you’re looking for a book that will get kids talking, I think this one has your number.
When Dani’s mom and dad split up she made one thing very clear; She wanted to stay with her mother and not her double-crossing, two timing, cheating traitor of a father. So why is her mother making her spend a weekend with the man? This summer, Dani hasn’t any plans at all except to sit back in her tiny town’s solitary art house theater and watch all the film noirs she can. Unfortunately, now she has her dad’s new life (and new upcoming wife) to distract her, as well as a mystery at the theater. Who was that mysterious girl she saw exciting the projectionist booth unawares? Is there a double cross going on? Who’s going to find out? Conjuring up everything from Gilda to Double Indemnity, this Rita Hayworth-obsessed heroine finds a mystery of her own and sets out to solve it. But are all mysteries meant to be solved? And what happens when uncovering the crime makes you more culpable than the people committing it?
Suma does a nice job with Dani’s voice. This particular heroine has a tendency to waver between the inherent romanticism and drama of her black and white noir world, and the reality of her low-rent little town. Right on page one she tells you, “There’s the one supermarket, the one movie theater, the one Chinese restaurant. But there are twelve different places to buy junk for your lawn.” Really, the descriptions in this book are a lot of the fun. Sentences like this one about putting butter on movie popcorn may even make you physically ill. “The what-we-assume-is-butter sinks down into the lower reaches of the popcorn slowly, like ear wax coming alive and spreading down your body to your feet.” Suma also describes characters in an almost visceral sense. Of the mysterious “other woman” Dani has taken to spotting, she says that the girl has, “… oddest of all, footless tights with spots all over them, dark pink and star white, like she broke out in some sort of heinous rash just on her legs.” Or of her future stepsister, “Her eyes are like the sharp little stones you step on when you’re running down the driveway to get the mail…”
In a book of this sort, the primary difficulty comes in maintaining Dani as the kind of person you want to read about. To be blunt, she is often not very likeable. Sympathetic, oh yes! But not likeable. I’d love to poll kids on the moment when they start breaking with her, mentally criticizing her for her choices. Near the beginning? Halfway through? Right at the end? Or are there kids out there who feel like Dani is justified on acting on her whims at the expense of others every step of the way? For me it was around page 16 when you hear Dani say of her old friend Taylor, “I could compliment her hair, but I don’t. Besides, she’s in my way.” Taylor, for the record, is a pretty interesting character too. She begins the book just as someone for Dani to be dismissive of. The kind of girl who has t-shirts with fuzzy tiger heads on them, and unicorns on her books. But as the book goes on, Taylor becomes the kind of person who would normally be the hero of a middle grade novel. She learns, grows, and even begins to question why she would even want to be friends with Dani as the story goes on. I do believe that there will be some kids out there who don’t like Dani and who will put down the book because they can’t make themselves spend any more time with her. Most, however, may not like her but they’ll relate to her, and in the long run that’s what’s more important.
There were particularly contemporary plot details that I thought worked very well in the context of the story. Perhaps the use of Facebook in the plot will date it as the years go by, but I prefer to think of it as an element that simply solidifies it in a specific moment in time. As for cell phones, Suma’s very good at using them perfectly. Sometimes I feel like many middle grade authors today are more comfortable writing historical fiction because they won’t have to deal with the problem of how to incorporate cell phones into their stories. Smart authors use them strategically like Ms. Suma does here. Everything from ringtones to spotty cell service caused by nearby mountainsides has a purpose here. A tip of the hat to that.
Not to give anything away, but I was very pleased with how the book ended. Aw, what the heck. Spoiler alert if you don’t want to know the ending! Okay. So at the end of the book Dani could do a crazy 180 degree turnaround that is completely wrong for her character, and embrace her new stepfamily. Doesn’t happen. Her dad is a jerk of the first order and he’s not getting off the hook all that easily. And while there may be some hint that Dani will be going to his upcoming wedding after all, I wouldn’t necessarily bet on it. That’s part of the charm of Dani Noir. Even while you may not agree with everything it does, you are emotionally involved from page one onward. Dani’s anger and frustration is your anger and frustration. So at least she’s understandable.
It’s funny, but there’s a fellow debut middle grade novel that has come out in 2009 that acts as almost a companion to this book. Neil Armstrong Is My Uncle and Other Lies Muscle Man McGinty Told Me by Nan Marino would never be confused with Dani Noir but on paper the similarities are there. Both books star bullying, selfish, single-minded female protagonists who are dealing with the fact that their best female friends recently moved away and their parents are not getting along smoothly. In both cases there’s a boy who goes out of his way to be nice to our heroine in spite of the fact that she treats him like garbage. There’s even an older absent brother in both of the books who is unable to give our heroine the support that she really needs. Of course, these are just surface similarities. You’ll find the tone of the two tales very different indeed, but I still think that kids who like one will be naturally drawn to the other.
Though it stands entirely on its own, Dani Noir may be one of those books that lends itself to a sequel or two. Certainly Dani’s story isn’t done. Nor, for that matter, are the stories of her friends. It will be interesting to see the extent to which kids go for a character this self-involved. Still, let’s remember that Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins was the ultimate litmus test in me-focused children’s novels. The real question may be this; Does Dani change enough by the book’s end? Some will say yes. Some will say no. I say, read the book for yourself and find out.
On shelves September 22nd.
Notes on the Cover: At first I was convinced that this was the work of Loren Long. Not by a long shot. We’re dealing with one Marcos Calo for this one. The fun thing is that he has a post on his blog that shows all the working covers leading up to the final version.
Very Random Note: This is very silly, but I’m a huge Claude Rains fan. I love him. And I know he’s playing a villain in the movie Notorious, but it broke my heart to hear him called a “slimeball”. I mean, yeah he’s poisoning the woman he loves because his mom told him to but . . . but it’s Claude Rains! Dreamy delicious Claude Rains. How can you call him slimy? Sorry. It’s my Rains love coming out.
- Curious? Read Chapter One here.
- Feel free to stop by the Dani Noir website for more info.
- And don’t forget to get a gander at the back cover: