Every so often I’ll read a book written for kids or teens and I will feel sad that it wasn’t around when I was actually a kid or a teen. It might be because the story has an element that I think only kids can fully appreciate, say something particularly silly or wildly imaginative, and I’ll wonder what the 10-year old me would have thought about it. Or it might be, as is the case with Nova Ren Suma’s outstanding debut tween mystery, Dani Noir, that I think the book could have opened me up to something years before I actually ended up experiencing that thing in my life, and here I’m talking about black and white films. If I’d been able to read Dani Noir as a kid, I would have become a film nut at the age of ten, I am convinced of it. Forget the fact that my tiny hometown didn’t even have a video rental place for most of my formative years, let alone an arty movie theatre showing film noir every night of the week. I would have made it happen somehow with my 3 television channels and giant old family TV. This book might have turned me into the film nerd I am today, but twenty years sooner.
It’s the summer before eighth grade and Dani Callanzano has a lot of time on her hands. The last thing in the world she wants to do is go visit her dad, who now lives across the river with his fiancée and her horrid daughter Nichole, but there isn’t much to do in Shanosha either. Good thing she’s got the Little Art, a tiny movie theater that brings some drama to Dani’s otherwise unexciting mountain town. Dani’s on a film noir kick, and her favourite actress of-the-moment is Rita Hayworth. Dani says, “Most kids my age have no clue who she is. When they think of a big movie star they think of someone like Jessica Alba. But if Jessica and Rita Hayworth were in the same scene and the cameras were rolling you’d forget Jessica was even there.” (Aren’t you liking this kid already?) After an awful first visit her her dad’s new place, Dani heads back to Theater 1, taking refuge in front of the movie screen. It isn’t long, however, before her favourite escape becomes the centre of a mystery, revolving around a strange girl in polka dot tights. When Dani’s imagination starts rolling, things only get more complicated and she starts to see how real life can get be whole lot messier than the movies.
I loved how Dani likes to reimagine her world as if she was making a film, in the director’s chair. Chapter One was really brilliant, as Dani narrates her life at the moment as if she was directing a film about it: “The room would be dark and you’d get a close-up of just my face. That’s when I’d do this whole series of expressions with my eyes. You see fear. Joy. Rage. Bliss. Misery. Passion. Plus lots more stuff I don’t even know the words to. Then I’d take a few steps out of the frame and the shadows would swallow me. And no one would be able to find me after that.” The book is full of great passages like that, that reveal Dani’s flair for the dramatic and her vulnerability all at once. She’s a nuanced, complicated character. She wants drama, but doesn’t. She wants drama when it’s on the screen, but not when she’s living it. I think that’s just such a true observation about being a kid. Most kids crave drama but when it shows up, they want normal back: “Sometimes the bad guy is a person you love. A person you can’t just kick out of your life. And when the movie ends, and the curtain goes down, and the audience leaves the theater, you’re stuck in what’s known as real life. That’s where all the lights are on and the flawed people you’re related to are saying lines you don’t want to hear and there’s no one to yell “Cut!” to make it sop.” Any kids of divorced families who can relate to that? Hands up? I thought that Nova Ren Suma portrayed Dani’s confusion and hurt about her family situation perfectly. She’s mad but she doesn’t know if she should be, or who she can blame, or if she should blame anyone. All of it’s there.
I’d read more stories featuring Dani in a heartbeat. Dani’s a star in the making. Visit the book’s website for lots more and take a closer look at the development of the stunning cover art at Marcos Calo’s blog. Please let lots of kids discover Dani.