review by Jennifer Donovan from Snapshot
You know that great feeling when you read a book for the first time and just fall in love with the character or the author? That’s what happened to me when I read First Daughter: Extreme American Makeover. No, I’m not fourteen, but if you haven’t ever read children’s or teen literature just for you, you might be missing out (and may I remind you that many adults enjoy the Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter if you think that you would not ever like to read “kids’ stuff”). Not only that, but a great way to connect with your teen or preteen is if you occasionally read what they are reading.
Sixteen-year-old Sameera Righton is the adopted Pakistani daughter of white parents. Her father James Righton is running for President. Between boarding school and tagging along with her ambassador father, Sameera has lived much of her life abroad, and the campaign team thinks that she needs to look and act more “American.” Sameera, or Sparrow, as she is known to her friends and family, is a typical American teen–she texts, she blogs, she’s interested in sports, and well, yes she’s glad that this makeover sponsored by her dad’s campaign team might make her visible to the opposite sex. It’s an inspiring book, because we get to see a teen on the cusp of adulthood who respects herself and stands up for herself. What mom doesn’t want that for her own daughter? It reminds me a great deal of the movie the Princess Diaries because it is an accurate portrayal of the many teens who don’t choose an R-rated lifestyle or attitude.
The author Mitali Perkins (MP) and the character she created, Sparrow (SP) answered some questions for me (JD) about the themes addressed in this novel:
JD: Sameera, you benefited from a professional makeover. I know that most of us moms wish that we could have one of those. Are there any tips that you can pass along to us??
SR: Here’s what I learned, and it’s sort of … um, what’s the word, Mrs. J.? Oh yeah, counterintuitive. Spending a bit of time on your external self (not obsessing) can free your inner self. What I mean is, when you feel like you look good on the outside, it helps you to stop having your eyes on yourself. It’s like you check off one thing on your to-do list (make yourself look presentable) and can move on to the next item (make other people feel welcome).
JD: What about you, Mitali–mom to mom?
MP: Asking the blind to lead the blind, eh? Guess I’ll have to draw on the wisdom of one of the most beautiful women on the planet — my Mom. Her regimen includes the daily use of a homemade lime and glycerin facial scrub, taking a shower and moisturizing face, feet, and hands lavishly every night, drinking a glass of milk and honey before brushing her teeth, and exercising regularly. The only tip I’d add is to go through your closet periodically and get rid of all the sack dresses and sweatshirts that are indelibly stained — even if they serve as your Mommy burka of choice. Your husband will thank you, and so will the hot young thing you used to be (and still are inside).
JD: Did using the “Sammy” persona that the campaign team created make it easier or harder to endure the publicity?
SR: Pretending was stressful and exhausting. As soon as I stopped trying to be Sammy, I started having a lot more fun.
JD: As a wife, mom and author are there times when you retreat to a persona–a role that you think you should be playing, or that someone else saddles you with, Mitali?
MP: Try “minister’s wife” on for size! No, that’s actually an easy role as our congregation is fabulous and gracious and nobody expects me to play the organ (the only song I can play on a keyboard is “Way Down Upon The Swanee River”) or cook (Trader Joe’s concocts all my potluck contributions).
What’s hard is when I compare myself to the Stepford wife and mother who dwell in my head and waggle their perfectly manicured fingers at me. The only way to shut them up is a quiet time during which I remember that I (like Sparrow) am also beloved and accepted.
JD: Sameera, you seem to have such a good sense of self, and you have two great role models. Your mom is quite different from your Gran, but both are successful in different ways. Which qualities of each do you possess or wish you did?
SR: Gran and Mom both believe strongly in giving back, even though each of them does it differently. “To whom much has been given much will be required” is sort of a Campbell family mantra. I would like to do my own part someday, Mrs. J., because I know how blessed I’ve been.
JD: See what I mean? Polite and principled, just the kind of kid that I think we all want to raise.
JD: How has your parents’ support helped you to grow up into a confident young woman?
SR: They give me a lot of freedom to find and use my own gifts. Sometimes I secretly wonder if it’s easier for them to appreciate my differences because I’m adopted and we don’t share genes — they’re not always looking for that family musical ability or mathematical brain (good thing, because I stink at math). Anyway, even if that doesn’t play a part, they definitely don’t expect me to become a Mom clone or a Gran clone. If I tried that, they’d both go off on rants about being true to myself (it’s funny how they argue when they’re so much alike). Bottom line: I know that no matter what I do, even if I try something and fail, or make some pretty big mistakes, my parents and grandparents will love me to the end. Being loved and accepted like that gives you a ton of confidence.
JD: How can we as moms help our teens get through the rough patches?
MP: It is so tough to be a teen these days; I read Chap Clark’s Hurt and was astounded by how abandoned their generation feels by ours. After doing an extensive survey around the country, Clark realized that every teenager is on the hunt for an adult who will sit on the curb and just be with them. For a parent, that means actively listening. Being present. Showing compassion. Respecting their tastes and opinions even when we disagree. Saving our battles and passion for a few, big issues. Rewarding faithful behavior with more and more trust. I recommend reading Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages of Teens and figuring out how your particular teen feels loved. Then pour into that gaping love tank (aka the human heart) in countless ways.
Find out more about Mitali Perkins and her other novels at her site, read her thoughts about books and life between cultures on her blog the Fire Escape, and check out her parenting blog, Ambassador Families. Sparrow has a cool blog, too, where she weighs in on politicians, first daughters and much more.
If you would like to win a copy of this book, personally autographed by the author, to yourself or your favorite teen, please leave a comment below. Enter by Friday, and then come back to read next week’s 5 Minutes for Books column to see if you’ve won! Canadian and U.S. addresses are eligible.
Congratulations to the winners of Becka and the Big Bubble:
(There was a little confusion about Organizing for Life. It was not a contest, just a review, so no winner for that one. I’ll try to be clearer in the future if I post more than one review.)
You can read a bit more of the interview with Mitali and Sparrow at Jennifer’s Snapshot blog today.