Novel: Cilla Lee-Jenkins Future Author Extraordinaire
Author: Susan Tan
Target Audience: 8-12 (although, I personally think this would work really nicely as a read aloud with slightly younger children)
Publication Year: 28 March 2017
Setting: a city in the USA; current (2010s)
A Favorite Quote: “So even though my dad said, ‘Cilla, sweetie, at least give it a week,’ I despaired. As writers do.”
My One Sentence Summary: To ensure her fame before her baby sister’s birth disrupts her life (and ruins everything), eight and half year old Cilla Lee-Jenkins begins writing her memoirs.
What I loved about this book: As an author, I was amused by Cilla’s commentary on storytelling and writerly angst as she attempted to record her life story. Cilla’s voice is rich and engaging, and her anecdotes of early childhood were entertaining and, at times, heartbreaking. However, all of my favorite scenes in the novel were those that dealt with the rich and complicated family life Cilla experiences as the daughter of a Caucasian mother and a Chinese father. Cilla is confused by older adults who pester her at the grocery store and her grandfather’s office with questions about her ethnicity (“What are you?” asks one elderly woman. To which Cilla—misunderstanding the question’s intent—beautifully responds, “I am a future author extraordinaire.”) As Cilla records her memories, she begins to notice that while she adores her grandparents on both sides of her family and while they love her, the two sets of grandparents do not seem to like each other all that much. The layers of emotion explored and the authentically portrayed dynamics of a loving but fractured extended family had me wiping tears from my eyes by the novel’s final scenes (Ch. 13 “Traditions”). And last of all, I have to mention the gorgeous illustrations by Dana Wulfekotte, which were a perfect complement to the text.
Themes: Discovering self through understanding one’s heritage and family; learning to accept change; forgiveness and reconciliation in relationships (both friends and family)
Who should read this book: In my opinion, this book will resonate most with younger middle grade readers—particularly those with a strong vocabulary. As a teacher, I see many opportunities to use this novel in a classroom to review parts of a story (Cilla makes references to plot devices and storytelling techniques throughout the novel). There are also many writing assignments teachers could easily incorporate if a class was reading this book—writing a class story as Cilla does in Chapter 5 and 6, assigning students to write their own memoirs, and creating family trees as Cilla does in Chapter 9…to name a few.