Thursday, September 27, 2012

Review: Clara in Washington by Penny Tangey

Clara in Washington by Penny Tangey
Reviewed by Maggie: September 27, 2012
Published June 27, 2011 by University of Queensland Press
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When I first started teaching, I thought I was down with the students... until they asked me if I’d seen High School Musical.

Me: “No, what’s it called?”
Kid: “… High School Musical.”
Me, looking at the student like she’s special: “Your high school musical is called ‘High School Musical’?”
Kid, looking at me like I’m special: “Are you serious right now?”

One week later, after I’d bought and watched BOTH High School Musicals (because there are TWO of them!), I was leading the kids in “We’re all in this together...”

I think it’s pretty easy to find common ground with kids. Their High School Musical is my Newsies. However, one thing that differentiates 80s babies from this generation is that we never grew up with the constant fear of terrorism. Sure, we had Stranger Danger and Chester the Molester (and fear of rhymes apparently), and there were acts like the Oklahoma City bombing, but we didn’t live with a palpable threat. A fear of flying often carried the descriptor "irrational". 

Clara has just finished taking her Year 12 exams in Melbourne and decides to accompany her mom to Washington, DC over summer break. Rather than feeling excited, Clara is anxious and scared. She’s scared of being attacked – by muggers, by terrorists. She prefers to stay in the apartment watching Gilmore Girls and The West Wing (me on a normal day), but when she does venture out, she makes sure her cell is pre-dialed to 911 in one hand and her keys are sticking out of her fist in the other (me on a normal night). When not watching TV, she’s checking up on her friends back home on Facebook. After her mother suggests she volunteer and do something productive with her time, Clara signs up to volunteer at a soup kitchen and Reading Beyond Bars, an organization that sends books to prisoners. While working, she meets a guy, aka a REAL incentive to get out of the house. Over talks about life and politics, she finds herself leaving her comfort zone both physically and ideologically. This is a coming of age story set on the eve of Obama's inauguration. 

Clara in Washington was such a fresh and unique read. For starters, it tackles a topic that I think is too often avoided: politics. Each chapter starts with a quote from a president or a political figure. It's crazy to me that incest (INCEST!) is fair game in YA, while politics seems taboo. I feel like I was more politically aware in high school, with Speech & Debate, JSA, etc, than I am now. Clara has political opinions. Of Obama versus McCain, she says,
"Obama is inspiring and McCain is just blah."
Before you think this is a purely pro-Obama book, the group of anarchists that Clara befriends through volunteering are vociferously anti-Obama. It's interesting that some of the complaints the anarchists have of Obama are issues that are being raised in the current election cycle.

Regardless of your opinion of Obama, his election had an impact beyond the United States. It's fascinating to view the election through the eyes of an Australian, and Penny Tangey describes the celebratory atmosphere the day he won the presidency. Likewise, I loved looking at our nation's capital from the viewpoint of a foreigner. I mean, if you think about it, what is it with our need to take pictures in front of phallic monuments?

While the topic of this book is something I gravitate towards, the tone is different from my usual reads. A lot of the story takes place in Clara's head. She's working through fears, guilt from her fears, doubts about herself and her future. Clara's voice reminded me a lot of Bindy Mackenzie -- they're both straightforward with a dry sense of humor -- but Clara isn't as sure of herself as Bindy. She's always wanted to study law, but she doesn't know if that's what she wants anymore. Whereas I had issues with Bindy, I really liked Clara. She's struggling with a lot in between random TV marathons and Facebook stalking, but her voice is so authentic.

This book made me think of Good Oil and The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie, but while I gave both of those books 3 stars, I'm giving Clara in Washington 4.5. The tone, the characters, the setting, the story just worked for me. I loved seeing Clara's development, which was gradual and full of mistakes. I loved lines like this:
"I don't have anything revolutionary but perhaps if I wear all black people will think I'm well-read."
I think this is a timely, thoughtful, bold book. I would've absolutely loved reading this in high school. Having said that, this book is not for everybody. If the word "unpatriotic" is in your daily vocabulary, you will not like this book. If the words "unpatriotic" and "birther" are in your daily vocabulary, you will definitely not like this book. Seriously though, there are a lot of quiet moments where Clara is just thinking. I'm usually the first to roll my eyes when a book is described as being quiet, ie BORING, but this story wasn't boring for me. Clara in Washington is a fresh take on a girl discovering her place in the world during the time of school results, election results, and Facebook.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars.


  1. What an intriguing review!

    I have to laugh at your opening because I am a huge HSM fan and I'm 27. haha. I've also hadn't seen Newsies until about a year ago, when I was seeing it on stage for the first time. (I'm a bigger fan of the musical than the movie.)

    But wow. What an interesting topic! I'm in the middle of reading the second book in The President's Daughter series, and I'm more and more surprised how subtley political it is. Maybe you might want to look into it?

    Thanks for writing this! I also love the cover & I am off to add it to my GR.

  2. Haha, Oh Maggie - I bet your students love you. As an almost three year resident of DC, I'd actually really like to know how outsiders view us. That and the Good Oil comparison really make me want to read this.

    I always clutch my keys in a fist too. That's just smart planning, sheesh. Also...we took a picture in front of the Washington monument like three weeks ago. :-|

  3. You're so right about the different pressures involved in being a kid/teen now than back in the late 80s/90s and politics really isn't a subject we see a lot in YA but I don't see why we shouldn't.

    I can never get excited about our federal elections here, basically we're dealing with a bunch of people who are all really similar and they're all talking crap but I do remember being at work and having the tv on when Obama was elected, we watched all day long and I was chatting with friends in the US while watching and I was much more excited for them.

    I can't wait to read about Clara, I love that she's a little like Bindy!

  4. I was just thinking the other day about the potential of a political YA. The only one I've come across is a historical one and the thought of a modern day one feels a bit tricksy. And this is coming from a poiltics nerd.
    This sounds fascinating and challenging - UQP publish the best books!

  5. Oh my god, I feel like I don't know you at all. Debate? You did debate in high school? You didn't know what High School Musical was? You are interested in law/politics? WHO ARE YOU?


  6. This one sounds amazing and so different. Totally agree about politics vs incest (that's a sentence I never thought I'd write).

    I can't wait to read this one :) The cover is beautiful.

    Also, High School Musical? Are you serious? I used to think we were in this together, Mags. But no. NOT AT ALL.

  7. (Admits to not only having watched, but owning all three HSM movies, though it has been several years since I watched them.)

    This review was great, I've just seen we've got a copy at the Library I work at so I'm grabbing it tomorrow.


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