Reshma Kapoor is your new favorite anti-hero. An almost-straight-A student at an elite Silicon Valley high school, she’s vying for the top rank in her senior class and an early-action spot at Stanford.
The book opens with a literary agent contacting Reshma about an article she published in The Huffington Post. The agent asks if she’d be interested in writing a novel. Despite having no free time and a study regime held together by a heavy dose of ambition and a burgeoning Adderall addiction, Reshma senses an opportunity here––and grabs it.
Reshma decides she’ll write a novel about her transformation from a serious student into a fun-loving American Girl. And thus begins Enter Title Here. The book is written in first-person as though Reshma’s crafting it as she goes along. Reshma, the “author” and the narrator, often intervenes to remind us of this fact:
By the end of the novel, I’ll turn into a whimsical girl who harvests all the possible joy from each moment and lives a carefree existence and lets the future take care of itself and all that other bullshit.
This YA novel is a fun, if at times disturbing, ride. It does so many things well, and it’s hilarious and terrifying and profound and troubling, all at once.
Occasionally, it almost veers into satire, but each time Kanakia could take the easy route, making Reshma too malevolent, or the story too clean, he complicates things instead. The book has a lot to say about self-punishing overachievers and the hyper-competitive culture that’s nurtured them.
Here are three things kidlit writers can learn from this fresh, fascinating debut.
1. Meta can work. If you do it right.
Enter Title Here is frequently, almost constantly, self-referential. Reshma writes about looking for a character arc, getting her word count in, and worrying about a resolution for the story’s major and minor plotlines.
Often this kind of intrusion throws me out of the story, but Kanakia pulls it off. And I think what works here is that the book is self-referential and aware of itself as a book because it has to be, in order for the story to work. When we see Reshma struggling to discover her protagonist’s next move, it’s not really authorial intrusion; it’s the character herself moving towards her goal––and working to discover what that goal really is.
So this act of grappling with form and pace and plotting serves to heighten the stakes and dramatize Reshma’s predicament. In searching for a resolution to the story, Reshma’s also searching for a resolution to her own problems: what does she really want? And how’s she going to get it?
2. Play with expectations.
Reshma’s Indian-American, and she’s very aware of how this affects the way people perceive her. Kanakia plays with these expectations and stereotypes, subverting both the “strict immigrant parents” stereotype and the model minority myth.
There’s an especially satisfying plotline featuring Reshma’s English teacher, Ms. Radcliffe. Ms. Ratcliffe has a tattoo and a QUESTION AUTHORITY poster on her classroom wall. She’s constantly asking Reshma to “go deeper” with her papers. Sounds like a decent English teacher, right?
Except Ms. Ratcliffe is actually kinda racist. With little evidence, she’s jumped to the conclusion that Reshma’s parents must be pushing her too hard. Her assumption culminates in this cringeworthy dialogue:
In my travels, I’ve seen that some cultures don’t place as much value on original creative expression.
It’s so believable, so familiar somehow. And utterly depressing.
Kanakia reveals Ms. Ratcliffe’s true colors at the perfect juncture in the story, when, despite her flaws, we’re really on Reshma’s side. We know full well that it’s Reshma’s relentless drive, and not any pressure from her parents, that’s brought her this far. And we’re just as angry as she is that Ms. Ratcliffe has it wrong.
3. Keep it simple.
Kanakia’s prose is clean and straightforward. There’s not much metaphor and the sentences tend toward the no-nonsense.
Because Kanakia’s writing as Reshma, this really fits. Our protagonist is on a mission: to finish her book and get into Stanford. She’s been playing an academic game her whole life, always writing how teachers want her to write. She’s used complex sentences to get the better mark, imagery that didn’t really resonate with her because she knew her graders would like it. But now that Reshma’s telling her own story, she’s telling it in her voice. A voice that’s succinct, direct, and always driving forward.
Kanakia’s simple prose style also leaves room for particular sentences to stand out. I’m thinking especially about one line that, for me, got to the heart of Reshma’s character and motivation:
All I want is to stand up front at graduation and incinerate them all with my greatness.
All of a sudden, that one strange word––incinerate––turns everything on its head. Reshma’s not an everyday overachiever. And her goal is not your everyday goal. Instead of getting lost in a mountain of prose, this sentence really shines. And we can’t help but wonder what happens next.
Want to chat about Enter Title Here and other great MG and YA books? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.