Sunday, November 18, 2012

Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee

Yee, Lisa. 2003. Millicent Min, Girl Genius Book Cover. Jacket Photograph by Gary Spector. Book cover designed by  Elizabeth B. Parisi. From
Yee, Lisa. 2003. MILLICENT MIN, GIRL GENIUS. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, An Imprint of Scholastic Press. ISBN 0439425190

Eleven-year-old Millicent Min takes pride in being a genius, even if other people call her an overachiever and a compulsive perfectionist. Unfortunately, Millie’s genius doesn’t extend to social skills, which is why she does everything she can to hold on to her first ever best friend, Emily Ebers, even if that means keeping her genius status a secret. Millie struggles to balance taking her first community college class, tutoring “Stupid Stanford Wong” through his summer school remedial English course, and the mysterious illness her mother has suddenly developed. What happens when Emily discovers Millie’s secret? Should Millie listen to her beloved grandmother, Maddie? Is it sometimes better to be liked than it is to be right?

The book focuses on the theme of friendship. Millie may be an intellectual genius, but she lacks social skills and struggles to interact with her peers, as well as adults. For instance, Millie truly believes that Debbie, a community college student, who is using Millie to do her homework, is her friend. Millie is stunned when Debbie tells her, “Listen, I’m very fond of you, but you’re just a child. You can’t really expect us to be in the same social circle, can you?” (p. 36). Other themes in the book include the value of honesty and wanting to belong.

The Min family is Chinese-American, with an emphasis on American. The family eats American food, does not celebrate Chinese holidays (at least during the course of the summer), and no one in the family, not even Maddie, Millie’s grandmother, speaks Chinese. Maddie reads tea leaves and wants to practice feng shui, however, it seems like she is removed from her Chinese heritage. For instance, Millie calls Maddie by her first name instead of the more respectful and traditional American “Grandma” or the Chinese equivalent, “Ma Ma” (Cantonese) or “Nai Nai” (Mandarin). 

Millie stands out, not because of her cultural heritage, but because of her intellect. Although Millie thinks she is extremely mature and cannot wait to grow up, she worries about the things most eleven-year-olds do, her friends and family. Cultural markers are infrequent and vague. The biggest clue to Millie’s Chinese-American culture is in her last name, not in the way she views or interacts with the world.

The book is set in the suburbs of southern California. The geographic culture of volleyball practice, hanging out at the mall food court, and studying at the library is more integral to the story than Millie’s Asian-American heritage. There are numerous pop culture references, which gives the book a contemporary feel.

The text is written from Millie’s perspective and as the story progresses her voice can be grating at times. Millie’s a know-it-all and it is difficult at times to connect with her overly logical, holier-than-thou attitude. For instance, Millie likes the smell of the linens at Emily’s house and she makes a note to ask Emily’s mom what kind of detergent she uses so that Millie can suggest it to her mom. Millie extols her own virtues saying to herself, “I’m always giving people suggestions on how to improve things. I like to be helpful” (p. 76). Her friends, Emily and Stanford, are much more likable and it is their presence that keeps the book lively and entertaining.

Unfortunately, the conclusion of the book is unsurprising. Even young readers will easily predict that keeping a secret from her best friend will get Millie into trouble, but that some soul-searching and heart-felt apologies will get the friendship back on track.

Best Books For Children: Preschool-Grade 6 – 8th & 9th Editions

Review in BULLETIN OF THE CENTER FOR CHILDREN'S BOOKS: "The depictions of Millicent's affectionate parents and her loving and eccentric grandmother refreshingly reject stereotypes of both Asian-American families and showboating relatives of gifted children. The "genius" notion may hook readers, but it's the sympathetic depiction of universal trials that will keep them reading."

Review in SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: "While some readers will have trouble identifying with Millie, her trials and tribulations result in a story that is both funny and heartwarming. A universal truth conveyed is that honesty and acceptance of oneself and of others requires a maturity measured not by IQ but by generosity of spirit." 

Review in PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY: "Millicent's unique personality—a blend of rationality and naïveté—makes for some hilarious moments as the young protagonist interacts with a cast of colorful characters including her athletic, down-to-earth mother, her laid-back father, and her beloved grandmother, who borrows sage advice from the television show, Kung Fu. Yee re-examines the terms "smart" and "dumb," while offering a heartfelt story full of wit."

Review in BOOKLIST: "Millie's pretentious voice grows tiresome after a while, but Yee does an excellent job of showing both Millie's grown-up brain and her decidedly middle-school problems. Even if they can't relate to her mastery of Latin, most kids will readily follow as Millie struggles through a world where she's smarter than everyone but still sometimes clueless."

*After reading the book ask kids what they thought Millie learned over the summer. Did she learn more from books or from people? Invite kids to write about an experience where they learned something from a friend.

*Other middle grade novels about girls who take pride in their intellect: 
L’Engle, Madeleine. 1962. A WRINKLE IN TIME. ISBN 978-0312367541
Kelly, Jacqueline. 2011. THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE. ISBN 978-0312659301
Konigsburg, E. L. 1998. THE VIEW FROM SATURDAY. ISBN 978-0689817212

*Companion books to MILLICENT MIN, GIRL GENIUS:
Yee, Lisa. 2005. STANFORD WONG FLUNKS BIG-TIME. ISBN 978-0439622479
Yee, Lisa. 2007. SO TOTALLY EMILY EBERS. ISBN 978-0439838481
Yee, Lisa. 2011. WARP SPEED. ISBN 978-0545154000

*Other books by Lisa Yee:
Yee, Lisa. 2009. ABSOLUTELY MAYBE. ISBN 978-0439838450

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