I just read Claudie's first book! Here's the summary and review!
If you don't want to be spoiled, don't click this post... BUT make sure to order the book on americangirl.com or another retailer!
Claudie is taking a dance lesson with her best friend Nina, a skilled dancer, and their dance troupe, the Harlem Angels. Claudie feels like she can't keep up with the dance, a griot, which originated in West Africa. After the dance, Claudie watches Nina perform a solo, and she feels like there's nothing special about her, like she was born without a gift. After dance class, Claudie goes to Angelo's Bakery, where her Daddy works, and asks him if she's talented. He says that she's good at basic tasks like being a good sister to her 6 year old brother Jody, but Claudie still doesn't feel special. She looks over at her notebook, which is blank, but only because Claudie only imagines filling it with stories- not actually writing them. Daddy tells her that she needs to work and practice if she wants to develop a talent.
When she gets back to her boardinghouse, Claudie asks Miss Amelia, the owner who is from Jamaica, why she left her home for Harlem. She replies that she fell in love with the city, which gets Claudie thinking about her parents, who left Georgia and South Carolina for Harlem. As she watches all the boarders, including jazz singer Selma, musician Porter and artist Gwen, run about the house, Claudie thinks more about Mama, a reporter for the Amsterdam Times, and wonders if things would be different if she wasn't running late all the time in the night. After she gives Jody a bedtime puppet show, Claudie talks to Mama, who thinks she could be a reporter one day and mentions she is going back to Georgia in a month with her cousin Sidney to visit. Claudie wants to go, but her mom says that she isn't ready yet, which upsets her.
Claudie decides to go on a hunt for her own special talent. She starts talking to the boarders and asks them how they discovered their talents. She learns that Selma was a church choir singer for her preacher dad in Texas when she was little, and after seeing a traveling singer once, Selma toured the country to perform. Claudie sings with Selma, but she doesn't consider herself any good. Claudie then offers to help Miss Amelia with her sewing, which she is doing more of to help make ends meet. Miss Amelia tells her that she shouldn't worry about "sewing a whole dress", but to "start with one button". With this new outlook, Claudie goes to Mama's newspaper job to learn more about reporting. When Claudie walks in, Mama hides the article she was writing, which Claudie asks about. She learns that the article was about the hanging of a Black man. Claudie asks why she writes about things like hangings, lynchings and hate crimes, and Mama tells her "we have to help people see what they'd rather ignore", but doesn't elaborate on that comment.
Claudie keeps searching for her talent, shadows her parents at their jobs at the bakery and newspaper, and then meets Porter and learns how to play the cornet. When asked about how he found his talent, Porter says he is from New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, so he knew he wanted to play. Porter also tells Claudie that she has to learn how to improvise on the instrument, similar to how she puts on her puppet shows for Jody. Claudie realizes it might be a talent when Porter explains more about his background: after he fought in World War I alongside Daddy, he went back home to New Orleans, but was jumped by a white man, so he moved to Harlem where it was safer. Claudie doesn't understand why someone would do such a thing, but Porter says that he doesn't either.
Porter takes Claudie and Jody to a Negro League Baseball game. At first, Claudie can't stop thinking about Porter's story, but being at the game helps clear her head. She talks to Winston, one of her friends who is good at art, about his talent, and he tells her that he moved to Harlem from Mississippi for more opportunities. Claudie has never considered that she's always lived in a place where people escaped from other places to get to, but she stops thinking when Jody's favorite player scores, and Jody says he shot the baseball to the moon. Claudie laughs with him and lets her imagination soar as high as the baseball.
Late one night, Claudie notices Daddy cooking in the kitchen because he had a nightmare about the war. Claudie asks more about the mistreatment Black veterans faced after World War I, and Daddy explains that he thought life would be different for Black people after they fought for America in World War I, but instead, race riots occurred the summer after the war. The week after, Claudie finds out that the boardinghouse has gotten an eviction notice. She thinks about Miss Amelia's sewing, as well as things costing more than they have in the past, and worries. Jody comforts her, and tells her that everything will be alright.
Claudie learns that Miss Amelia fell behind on the rent by over $100. Determined to not lose her home, Claudie tries to figure out how to raise the money. While the boarders work extra hard to make more, Nina, who is wealthier than Claudie, naively suggests Claudie raises the money herself. Earlier that day, Daddy told Claudie about rent parties, parties that charge attendees to get in and raise money to pay the rising cost of rent, and Claudie comes up with the idea to have her own with the boarder's special talents.
When she asks the boarders to perform at her variety show rent party, Selma asks if Claudie herself will be performing. Claudie refuses, so Selma offers her to be the director. Claudie accepts this position, and gets her friends and family involved in the show as well. At dance class, her teacher Miss Zula asks if Claudie would like a custom solo to perform at the show, but Claudie turns this offer down. When Claudie approaches the reclusive painter Gwen, the last boarder, she tells Claudie that she will paint a backdrop for the show on one condition: Claudie performs at the show. Claudie isn't sure what to do, but inspired by her puppet shows for Jody, she is encouraged to write and perform an original sketch.
Claudie tries to come up with ideas for her sketch, but struggles to do so. Gwen tells her to take a walk of inspiration through Harlem, and during her walk, Claudie realizes she wants to write something about Harlem- but just can't figure anything out. When she tells her mom this while she packs for her two-week long trip to Georgia, Mama tells Claudie to talk to people. Claudie thinks back to all the places the boarders came from and all of their histories, and then tells her that she wants to go to Georgia with her. Mama explains that the South is different from Harlem, but lets her go with her after Claudie tells her why she wants to go. Claudie then packs up for Georgia, determined to find an idea for her sketch and make a successful show.
My Review: American Girl has done it again.
Where do I even start? Everything about this book was near perfect. The characters (especially Claudie), the setting, the plot, the integration of 1920s history both positive and negative into the story, the writing style... EVERYTHING!
I never get this excited about books usually, even American Girl ones. But Claudie's was breathtaking. It's been two hours since I finished and I still can't find the words to describe turning every page, even though I was taking notes for the summary the entire time. Claudie was a very relatable character, and it was refreshing to see an American Girl doll discovering her own talent instead of being automatically good at something. In that sense, Claudie felt like a real girl- relatable like the old Pleasant Company stories.
That's exactly how I want to describe the style of this book: Pleasant Company. While it is updated and goes more in-depth over issues that would have been somewhat glossed over had this been published in the 90s, it feels like a Pleasant Company story in some sense. Maybe it's just the fact that there was the same storyline for the whole book that was done well and didn't feel shoved in. Or maybe it's because author Brit Bennett grew up on Pleasant Company books, especially the Addy series by Connie Porter, and knew how to write from the heart of a 9 year old girl who was eager to start writing, playing and imagining.
Claudie's budding discovery of stories and writing honestly hit home for me. Nearly a decade ago, in 2014, I started an AGTube channel and made little American Girl doll stopmotions. They started out as little stories, but eventually over the years, they progressed even bigger and better, culminating in ultimately starting both a TV pilot and a feature film script in 2019. The TV pilot never went anywhere, but the feature film did, and... I think you guys have heard of the one about the dystopian government and the two girls. But even though I've came that far, with millions of views on the Internet inspiring me to keep going to reach new heights in my career, I still remember being a girl messing around with her best friend trying to come up with the best stories to tell, ranging from school bullying to dance parties. I remember exploring my craft, trying to figure out how to tell a story, and having fun with it. I even remember writing cringeworthy books when I was 8 years old. Claudie's story of trying to find her talent, and honing in her writing craft, gave me all of those same feelings again. It transported me back to when I was 9, posting my early AGTube videos, and discovering the power of a story. I truly commend Brit Bennett for capturing all of those feelings.
I didn't mean to get all emotional here... but I do have only one complaint about this near-perfect book. IT WAS WAY TOO SHORT, AND IT ENDED ON A CLIFFHANGER! WHY DO I HAVE TO WAIT UNTIL SPRING 2023 TO READ THE REST OF CLAUDIE'S STORY? I WANT TO FIND OUT HOW HER VARIETY SHOW GOES NOWWWW NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO-
Fine. 10/10. Well played, Brit Bennett.
Are you excited to read Claudie's book?