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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #4 (January 25, 2005), page 14.

Itís not about how smart you are

Millicent Min, Girl Genius

By Lisa Yee

Scholastic, 2003

Paperback, 248 pages, $4.99

By Josephine Bridges

Millicent Min, Girl Genius begins with the rťsumť of an 11-and-a-half year old who has just completed her junior year of high school. "Long-term Objective(s): To be awarded the Fields Medal, MacArthur Grant, and other prestigious honors, and to embark on several careers including psychometrician, journalist, judge, and acclaimed pastry chef." The next page is labeled "June 7," the last day of school, and starts like this: "I have been accused of being anal retentive, an overachiever, and a compulsive perfectionist, like those are bad things." Oh, Millicent, this isnít going to be easy.

In the first chapter, our protagonist confides, "When I look back at my childhood, it doesnít seem so long ago." She finds 23 typos in her yearbook, four of them misspellings of her name. She reads the same parenting books her parents read, so she knows "what to expect from them." But Millicent, for all her gray matter and delicious eccentricities, has never had a friend, and Millicent Min, Girl Genius is ultimately a story about friendship.

The one good thing about Rancho Rosetta Girls Summer Volleyball League is that Millicent meets Emily there. Emily has all the social skill that Millicent lacks. "Itís more work to be mean than it is to be nice," says Emily. "The prospect of having a friend my own age is quite thrilling," writes Millicent. "I hope Emily will not be put off by my credentials." But although Millicentís mother advises her to tell Emily soon, Millicent finds it increasingly difficult to disclose her brilliance to her new friend.

And then thereís Stanford Wong. "Because of you," he tells Millicent, "teachers expect every Chinese kid to be a genius." The grandson of one of Millicentís grandmotherís best friends, Stanford has failed his English class and has to take it again over the summer. "I am to tutor my mortal enemy," notes Millicent. When Emily and Stanford meet by accident, they take a liking to each other, and Stanford carries Millicentís cover-up to a whole new level.

Millicent is embarrassed by her parents, but readers will probably enjoy them. Millicentís mother, an actuary, makes friends easily. "On the phone. In the Ten Items or Less line," relates Millicent. Her father "has designed a series of shelves that are held up by the branches without the benefit of nails" in a tree where his daughter loves to sit. (Heís less successful in a brief role as the tooth fairy.) Maddie, Millicentís grandmother, goes to Hitchcock movies with her granddaughter at the Rialto. "Whoeverís the first one to spot him in his famous cameos gets to pick an accent the other person is forced to use for the rest of the day."

While ethnic issues arenít a central part of this book, the author presents them with a deft touch. When Millicent orders huevos rancheros at a cafeteria, the cashier says, "I didnít think you people liked that kind of food." Quips Millicent, "Nothing like being lumped in with a billion other people."

Millicent Min may be wittier than your average 11-and-a-half-year-old genius, but even if her acerbic tongue pushes the bounds of realism, readers might be laughing too hard to notice. When her mother talks about growing up without microwaves and remotes, Millicent doesnít know if "Iím supposed to feel sorry for her or be grateful that I donít have to scrub my socks on a washboard." She describes Stanford laughing "like a hyena, only not as dignified."

Millicent Min, Girl Genius, which was named the 2003 Sid Fleischman Humor Award winner by the Society of Childrenís Book Writers and Illustrators, is Lisa Yeeís first novel. According to the authorís biography, "it wonít be her last." Thatís good news.

* * *

From The Asian Reporter, V15, #4 (January 25, 2005), page 14.

Home-schoolers discuss Millicent Min, Girl Genius

By Josephine Bridges

Home-schoolers age 11 to 18 met at the Rockwood Library on January 11 to discuss Lisa Yeeís first novel, Millicent Min, Girl Genius, winner of the 2003 Sid Fleischman Humor Award. It was clear from the start that the social skills of various characters in the novel were far more important to both the young people and the adult participants in the group than their intellectual prowess.

The discussion began with an ice-breaker in which participants shared their name, age, and favorite character. Emily, the protagonistís friend with an average brain and extraordinary people skills, was the first choice of three participants. Several of those present related to Millicent, not as geniuses but as socially awkward kids ó and outcasts ó at her age, yet no one chose the brilliant, prickly protagonist as a favorite character.

When Stephanie, the group facilitator, asked if participants had been in a class like Millicentís poetry class, in which they were the only interested student, the answer was yes. Emily, 17, elaborated, "They look at you like a curve-wrecker because you care. You donít have to be a genius to be in that situation."

Because this was a group of home-schooled young people, discussion turned to an episode in the novel in which Millicentís father tries to home-school his gifted daughter and, after one day, the two agree to abandon the project. "Is this realistic?" asked Carol, one of the adult participants. Said Parker, 17, "Millicent and her dad are a lot more decisive than we are. Theyíre also radically different people." Participants agreed that Millicentís home-schooling would have been more successful if her dad had been able to simply "turn her loose."

Asked about the Asian-American ethnicity of several of the characters, including the protagonist, participants doubted that this was especially relevant to the novel. There was brief discussion of the tendency of students of Asian ancestry to "stereotypically score high on standardized tests" and of the authorís ethnic background, but participants were more interested in other aspects of Millicent Min, Girl Genius.

Disagreement is the spice of discussion, and Stanford Wong, "the poster boy for Chinese geekdom" whom Millicent tutors in English, provoked some differences of opinion. Said Simon, 11, "He shaped up, decided to do his work." Countered Zoe, also 11, "I think he was stupid."

Millicent Min, Girl Genius is not without its flaws, the group agreed. Millicent seemed more like the product of an adultís imagination than a real 11-year-old genius, and she had too clever a sense of humor, thought several participants. Yet when asked how many of those present would read a sequel, everyone raised a hand. Rumor has it that author Lisa Yee is at work on a novel about the same summer from Stanford Wongís perspective, and everyone thought that sounded just fine.

"It was more fun to read about Millicent at the beginning of the book, when she was really socially inept, but it was more fun to be Millicent at the end," Parker concluded. Participants in the Rockwood Library home- school book group are articulate critical thinkers who clearly gave Millicent Min, Girl Genius their best attention. Thereís probably no higher compliment.

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