Dara Palmer’s Major Drama by Emma Shevah.
UK: The Chicken House. US reprint: Scholastic, New York, 2015.
Middle grade realistic fiction, illuminated book, 282 pages (including extras).
AR Level: 4.8 (worth 7.0 points)
Dara Palmer’s life is sooo dramatic. She was clearly born to be a star, you can tell by how much TV she watches! It’s life or death that she gets the part of Maria in her school’s production of The Sound of Music, so when she doesn’t, some family members feel that it’s her dark skin keeping her from a part in the musical, not her overacting.
This was entirely an impulse buy. When I opened the book and discovered that it was illuminated (text is complemented/completed by pictures drawn around the margins and in the white space of the book), I was surprised. Another surprise followed as I found out the book was set in Great Britain. This edition is slightly Americanized (5th grade instead of 6th year), but the characters are still very British.
Dara Palmer is a pretty unlikeable character. She literally states this at the end of the first chapter:
“This all happened a while ago now. Let me just say, I was a different person back then. I don’t know if you’re going to like the old me much when you hear what I was like, but I’ve changed. Stuff happened along the way – all kinds of stuff, actually. Nuns and noodles were just the beginning.” ~page 2
Dara is self-absorbed, overly dramatic, and yet somehow magnetic. She comes off as very unsympathetic, until we get to know her a little more. If it wasn’t for the caveat in the first chapter, I might not have made it past the second. And that would have been a shame.
Here’s what I really like about this book – Dara is a deeply flawed character who is trying to improve. She is adopted, which plays a large role, but she is neither a sympathetic victim nor a grateful overachiever. She is, for all of her drama, intensely honest about her feelings and opinions. She has made a series of errors that are very typical for her age group, but has been afraid to reflect on the consequences of her choices because any deep thinking means facing the trauma of her early childhood and adoption. It’s a lot easier to create a lot of artificial drama than to confront a pain deep in your heart.
There are two adopted children in this family. The Palmers’ biological son came with them to Cambodia to meet Dara when she was adopted, and they were so affected by the conditions in the orphanage that they decided to adopt again, only to have their adoption disrupted by a change in regulation. For those unfamiliar, a disrupted adoption can be incredibly painful and traumatic. It is like a miscarriage, but the family is aware that the child is still out in the world, possibly in dire circumstances, and their hearts are forever tied to a child they may never have any contact with again. I felt like Shevah did a good job of portraying a child’s reactions and explaining the disruption in a natural and age-appropriate way.
After the disrupted adoption, the Palmers adopted Dara’s younger sister Georgia from Russia. They share a room and not much else. Georgia is always reading or running, not watching TV. It is pretty apparent early on that Georgia has her little sister moments, but she is generally nice and very sensitive to her sister’s insults and cruelty. Eventually we learn that Georgia is jealous of Dara’s confidence and the attention Dara attracts, while Dara is jealous of Georgia’s Caucasian appearance and goody-two-shoes nature. Georgia is worried that she’ll always be second best thanks to her older sister and the failed adoption before her, and Dara is still recovering from the pain of that disruption and concerned that Georgia always seems to please their parents more.
There were a lot of things that sort of fell into place in this book. Her frister’s sudden trip to Cambodia pushing her to reflect on her desires, teacher just happens to have a drama group that could solve her problems, old friends willing to take her back after she snubbed them, the sudden rocket to fame. However, the main character is obsessed with Hollywood movies and soap operas, the more melodramatic the better. I felt like this was a reflection of the story- a cheesy story, but one with real heart and thought behind it. With different characters, this might have annoyed me.
One of the best things were the little details. Because the book was illuminated, it wasn’t until chapter 19 that I realized that the squiggles next to the roman numerals at the beginning of each chapter were actually Khmer numbers. At the end of the book is a section with Khmer numbers and phrases.
Religion does come into the book twice (the nuns of the opening), first as The Sound of Music takes place partly in a Catholic convent, and secondly a Buddhist nun in Cambodia plays a minor but important role. The characters are not religious, and it is only mentioned in passing.
I’m curious whether there are more titles planned about Dara. In the US this was marketed like the first book in a series, but the author’s other work indicates that she focuses on intercultural, multiracial families generally.
Dara Palmer’s Major Drama is a light, dramatic read. But this is a surprisingly solid addition to the oh-so-few books about transracial adoption and the even shorter list of young Cambodian protagonists. I would recommend this book for 4th to 7th grade girls who are already watching way too much TV or obsessed with movies.