Committee for Children Blog

Book Review: Viva La Paris

by Esmé Raji Codell
Reading level: Grades 4–6

When you’re a fifth-grade girl, it’s tricky enough to try to solve the problem of your eighth-grade brother being bullied by another fifth-grade girl. But when Paris McCray begins learning about the big-time bullying that went on during World War II, her brain and heart switch to overload, and all she can do is bury herself deeper and deeper in soul-crushing research.

A Spectrum of Solutions

Paris’s life is filled with loving people whose varied approaches to problem solving are driving her to distraction. Her mother and brother Michael live by the words and beliefs of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which means that Michael doesn’t fight back when he is harassed on the playground. Paris and Michael’s three older brothers espouse the use of a well-positioned fist to solve problems. Paris’s piano teacher is a Jewish woman who lost most of her family in the Holocaust, and whose cryptic references to the past fly right over Paris’s head until she learns—the hard way—the devastating power of ignorance:

There’s people who act without reason, who tell themselves that they are better than and have a right to, so scary and bad that one mess of people can’t even believe it enough to move, and a whole other mess of people are laughing and gathering ’round to watch the punches get thrown. That’s how it starts, by letting bullies be bullies, right? …How long is long enough to suffer these fools? Before your hot angry defrosts your frozen fear? Before you just got to bear down and open up a can of down-home, hundred-proof I-think-the-word-is-sanctified nip-it-in-the-bud? ’Cause I saw how far it can go, how ugly it can get, in those books, on my brother’s back, on Mrs. Rosen’s arm, on the cross at the big church, and now it was all crystal clear: there’s a time to be a polite person and a time for people to step up even at the risk of being as impolite as you have ever been.

When she finally emerges from her bleak marathon of self-education about the Holocaust, Paris discovers for herself the best way to use her beloved teacher’s gift of rose-colored glasses.

Social and Emotional Lessons in Viva la Paris

Viva la Paris, the marvelous sequel to Esmé Raji Codell’s award-winning Sahara Special, is packed with material for readers of all ages to contemplate. From Michael’s unorthodox, unapologetic embrace of peace, cooking, and show tunes (don’t worry, he is not as cliché a character as he might seem) to Mrs. Rosen’s decision to give Paris “Paris lessons” (she begrudgingly learns how to dance the cancan and sing “I Love Paris in the Springtime”), to her relationship with Tanaeja, the girl who torments Michael for her own secret reasons, this hilarious, sad, beautiful novel will open eyes and minds. Some questions for discussion:

  1. Mrs. Rosen tells Paris a story about a hawk attacking a chipmunk while a sparrow is turned the other way, singing as if it doesn’t see. After reading the whole book and learning more about Mrs. Rosen’s history, what do you think the sparrow story is really about?
  2. Why is Paris so frustrated with her brother’s response to his daily bullying treatment from Tanaeja?
  3. What family and cultural rules is Paris living by, and how do these rules get in the way of her ability to see what she must do?
  4. Why is Tanaeja so hard on Michael? How did you feel about her at the beginning of the book? How about at the end?
  5. It’s important to Paris to be seen as polite and smart. What does she learn from the people around her who aren’t as concerned with the way others see them?
  6. Music plays an important role in the novel and in Paris’s family. How might music help people from different backgrounds make connections to one another?

Emilie Coulter
Book Reviewer
Committee for Children