Charming as a Verb by Ben Philippe

 Charming as a Verb by Ben Philippe, Balzer + Bray (an imprint of HarperCollins), 9780062824141, 2020 

Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 5

Format: Hardcover

Genre: Romance, real life

What did you like about the book?  Senior Henri “Halti” Haltiwanger lives in a basement apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with his Haitian immigrant parents; Dad is the building’s super and Mom has left her paralegal job to pursue her dream of becoming a firefighter. He’s snagged a scholarship to prestigious FATE Academy and as the title would suggest, has used his considerable charm to become a popular student and to start his own dog walking business (which he disingenuously presents as part of a professional city-wide enterprise).  When his brilliantly intense classmate Corinne Troy catches the subterfuge, she blackmails him into upping her social cachet and in true rom-com fashion, they’re soon an item. As the senior class jockeys for Ivy admittance, Halti stresses over his chances at Columbia, his father’s dream for him. Spoiler alert: he’ll make a morally questionable decision that will jeopardize everything.

This book made me long for the pre-COVID world when we could attend school, go to bakeries, ride subways, and even visit Canada to look at colleges. It’s a breezy and smart romance with a lot of finely rendered details: the vitality of city life, the stress of being the working class kid at a rich school, the magic of a first love. I also loved Halti’s family and learning about his parents, his uncle, Haitan food — all shoehorned in without seeming extraneous. Halti’s best friend Ming (adopted from China and raised by White parents) makes a great sidekick; he’s supportive and funny but also three-dimensional. Corinne is Black, full-on brilliant, prickly, honest and with a great sense of style. Although the characters don’t spend much time on school assignments (except for Corinne), I could attribute that to the general ennui that descends on seniors once the applications are sent. Still, a side plot about Halti’s debate team was funny and authentic. 

Anything you didn’t like about it? Halti’s dream about being a sneaker designer…just didn’t do it for me. For the first half of the book, he never mentions it (although we know he likes cool sneakers). When he visits McGill University’s design program, he’s suitably impressed, but it made me wonder about all the other schools he’s applied to that DO NOT HAVE design programs. What was he planning to study at Oberlin? There were other issues with the college advising plot: Brown and Penn are not plausible backups for Columbia! 

To whom would you recommend this book?  Teens looking for romance, especially from a male point of view. This would be a good read alike for fans of Jenny Han, David Yoon or Becky Albertalli. Readers who loved Philippe’s 2019 The Field Guide to the North American Teenager will enjoy this sparkling sophomore effort.

Who should buy this book? High school and public libraries

Where would you shelve it? YA

Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? Yes. Just the thing for a COVID winter night!

Reviewer: Susan Harari, Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA

Date of review: February 19, 2021

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