November’s Big Picture
Admission by Julie Buxbaum
With its components of privilege and fame, the college admissions scandal has been inevitably absorbing, and here Julie Buxbaum (Hope and Other Punchlines, BCCB 6/19) explores it fictionally from the perspective of the seventeen-year-old beneficiary of her parents’ fraud. Chloe is the daughter of a beloved sitcom actress and a businessman, and her life is going well, despite her mediocrity as a student: she’s happy at her posh private school, she’s finally getting romantic time with Levi, the boy she likes, and she loves her best friend, Shola. Then it all explodes when FBI agents appear at the door one morning, and now “my mother is being accused of fixing my SAT score and paying bribes to get me into SCC.”
Narration effectively moves between “Then,” her parent-steered preparation for college, and “Now,” when her days are consumed by fear, shame, and lawyers. The college prep shows Chloe struggling with standardized testing, supported by a school counselor with a realistic appraisal of her chances, but soon private consultant Mr. Wilson makes a stunning difference to Chloe’s scores. She feels constant pressure to fulfill her parents’ dream (“I hate disappointing my parents, who have both worked so hard to give me this big, beautiful, privileged life”) while she’s sure that high-achieving Shola and Levi will get into their schools of choice and blithely assumes they, like her, can afford to go to whatever school accepts them. Mr. Wilson’s interventions sometimes puzzle Chloe, but “I think: Maybe there are some things I don’t need to know.” Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the charges, a dumbstruck Chloe negotiates a complex concoction of emotions. She’s stricken with guilt at needing such illicit help (“I’ve spent much of my life feeling stupid, and now I feel stupid and dirty and ashamed”); she’s devastated that Levi and Shola have completely ghosted her; she’s afraid for herself, as social media tears her apart and she gets named as a possible defendant; and she fears for her mother, who’s clearly going to prison.
There’s plenty of rubbernecking pleasure here, but Buxbaum goes beyond mere Lifetime movie gossip, writing with a combination of luscious enjoyment and accessible smarts that recalls Caroline Cooney. Characterization is shrewd, with Chloe sad and credible as a girl who’s simultaneously overcosseted and self-devaluing, while her younger sister, Isla, is fierce and perceptive about the consequences of their parents’ actions. Chloe’s grasp of what her family has done and why it’s so reviled (“I already have too much I did nothing to earn, and then I went ahead and stole from someone who was running all the bases”) believably builds, and readers will realize along with Chloe that she only managed to be transformed on paper into a pole-vaulting Latina who aced the SATs because her life had primed her to look the other way when it benefited her. That’s where the title ends up being a play on words: it’s not just about the admission Chloe is granted but also the one she ultimately makes to herself.
Teens will absolutely grab this to luxuriate in scandal and be amply rewarded with a world of swimming pools and donations and comeuppance. Some thoughtful readers, though, may be prompted to consider questions of their own privilege, even if it’s less stratospheric, and of their own willingness to overlook ways their parents shift the world in their favor. This is a rare combination of shiny yet thought-provoking, and it may encourage readers to reflect on their own moral positions. (See p. 124 for publication information.)
Deborah Stevenson, Editor
Cover art from Admission © 2020 Julie Buxbaum, reproduced by permission of Delacorte Press.
Starred titles are books of special distinction. See the archives for selections from previous months.
Eggers, Dave The Lights and Types of Ships at Night; illus. by Annie Dills. McSweeney’s, 2020 [32p]
Trade ed. ISBN 9781952119071 $18.99
Reviewed from digital galleys R* 4-8 yrs
Getten, Kereen When Life Gives You Mangos. Delacorte, 2020 [208p]
Trade ed. ISBN 9780593173978 $16.99
E-book ed. ISBN 9780593173985 $9.99
Reviewed from digital galleys R* Gr. 4-7
Smith, Emma Bland The Pig War!: How a Porcine Tragedy Taught England and America to Share; illus. by Alison Jay. Calkins Creek, 2020 [48p]
Trade ed. ISBN 9781684371716 $18.99
Reviewed from digital galleys R* 6-9 yrs
Turner, Megan Whalen Return of the Thief; illus. by Paul O. Zelinsky. Greenwillow, 2020 [480p]
Trade ed. ISBN 9780062874474 $18.99
E-book ed. ISBN 9780062874481 $12.99
Reviewed from digital galleys R* Gr. 6-9