320 pp. Delacorte Press (Random House) 2011 ISBN: 978-0-385-73935-1
Interest: 2011 Debut Author
Summary (From Goodreads): It’s hard finding beauty in the badlands of Washokey, Wyoming, but 14-year-old Grace Carpenter knows it’s not her mother’s pageant obsessions, or the cowboy dances adored by her small-town classmates. True beauty is wild-girl Mandarin Ramey: 17, shameless and utterly carefree. Grace would give anything to be like Mandarin. When they’re united for a project, they form an unlikely, explosive friendship, packed with nights spent skinny-dipping in the canal, liberating the town’s animal-head trophies, and searching for someplace magic. Grace plays along when Mandarin suggests they run away together. Blame it on the crazy-making wildwinds plaguing their Badlands town. Because all too soon, Grace discovers Mandarin’s unique beauty hides a girl who’s troubled, broken, and even dangerous. And no matter how hard Grace fights to keep the magic, no friendship can withstand betrayal.
Like Mandarin released back in March, and to be perfectly honest, I’m mad at myself for not having read it sooner. This book felt like it was meant for my students; I’ve met quite a few Graces and Mandarins over the past four years.
Grace is living in a small town with her single mother and her half-sister, Taffeta. Living in Washokey, Grace has never felt like she fits in. Many of the girls competed in beauty pageants, but Grace gave that up years ago. Now her mother is focusing on Taffeta with high hopes that Taffeta won’t be a huge disappointment. Grace is also incredibly smart for her age and has been moved up a grade, so she’s starting high school as a sophomore. She constantly feels like an outsider and wishes she could be carefree and beautiful like Mandarin. Grace hears the bad rumors about Mandarin, but she still wants to be like her. She wants to be noticed, to be seen.
Every year the students in Washokey are required to complete a service project. This year, it’s requested that for her service project, Grace helps Mandarin graduate. Can you imagine being a freshmen, but bumped up a year to a sophomore, helping a senior graduate?! If this didn’t make Grace feel more out of place, I don’t know what would. But she considers it and decides to go with it. This is her chance to get to know Mandarin.
I loved this book because it has so many layers. The biggest aspect of the story is about Grace discovering who she is as she becomes friends with Mandarin. She learns how to let go, how to rebel, how to feel comfortable in her own skin, and ultimately how important it is to stay true to herself. Another big focus in the story is Grace’s relationship with her mother. Grace’s father isn’t around and her mother had Grace at a young age. Their relationship is strained because Grace feels she’s misunderstood and can never do anything right for her mom. She’s not full of talent and beauty like her little sister Taffeta. These dynamics shape Grace’s character and her actions throughout the story.
When I was reading Like Mandarin I mostly connected with Grace, but I also felt a connection with Mandarin. Who hasn’t felt awkward and out of place like Grace? Who hasn’t looked at the “bad girl” and even for a moment wondered what it would be like to be her? I remember in 8th-9th grade feeling left out and tired of being “good” all the time. I saw the other girls partying and having fun and hanging out with boys. I remember even telling my mom once that I wanted to be like them. It’s an incredibly awkward age, and for some girls, an age that really determines which direction they’re going to go. Thankfully, I was able to talk to my mom about the feelings I had without being judged. I’m incredibly thankful for the relationship I have with my mom. Grace and Mandarin don’t have that relationship with their mothers. Plenty of girls do well without a close relationship with their mother, but I’ve met quite a few girls who struggle without that closeness. Grace’s service project ends up being more than just about helping Mandarin. This book delves into Grace’s and Mandarin’s feelings and motivations incredibly well.
This is a strong debut novel with an important message without being preachy. School starts in a couple weeks and I already know I’ll be talking about this book like crazy in my classes. I can’t recommend Like Mandarin enough.
Possible book pairings: Fixing Delilah by Sarah Ockler, Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr, Someone Like You by Sarah Dessen (what’s with all the Sara(h)’s?!)