Friday, August 26, 2011
Vaclav and Lena by Haley Tanner
Author Haley Tanner nails young love and the immigrant experience in this debut novel about ten-year-old neighbors in Brooklyn, both from Russia, who come from very different family backgrounds. Vaclav and Lena form a strong friendship, and struggle to make their way in the new world in which they find themselves. Vaclav wants more than anything to be a magician, and he’d like Lena to be his assistant. The scene in which they discuss which clothes they will wear for their magic show is most poignant—he chooses shoes covered in tin foil (voilà: silver shoes) and she dreams of a gold-colored fringed bikini.
This debut novel could (should?) really be classified as a teen title because it has all the ingredients, pace, and timing for a successful teen title, and is entirely appropriate for that audience. I believe it would receive attention and acclaim in that category. At first we see Vaclav and Lena at age ten, and their emotions and reactions are described in painstaking detail as they navigate an adult world in a new and confusing country. The adults are merely background to their blossoming confidence and coming of age. We see them again at age seventeen, and once again their feelings and reactions to the world are recorded faithfully.
This book would be a useful and pleasing required read for high school students for a number of reasons. It is current. The language and descriptions are relatively simple and clear, and can show students (and teachers) interested in the writing process how descriptive passages, conversation, and storyline all work together to move the story forward and create a coherent whole. It is a coming of age story without harrowing detail, but with implicit sexual awakening. It tells of an immigrant experience that is both important and interesting to examine in a group. It is from the point of view of teenagers, both of whom become perfectly realistic and admirable human beings, despite the difficulties of their upbringing.
I listened to the audio file of this book, read by Kirby Heyborne and Rebecca Lowman. I am so pleased to have heard it because the accented English did much to enhance the experience for me, as well as informed me that the name Vaclav is pronounced with a soft “c,” so that it sounds like "Vaslav" and Lena is not pronounced with with a long “e” sound, but with a schwa, as in “Ləna.”
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