Pick of the Week: Be Frank with Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

juliaclaibornejohnsonFrank Banning is not your ordinary nine-year-old boy. His IQ is higher than 99.7 percent of the American public’s. He likes to watch old movies and to dress like Rudolph Valentino and Fred Astaire. He likes pocket squares, tailcoats, spats, and top hats. He has a memory that will retain all the facts he picks up. But when he does something wrong, he bangs his head against a wall. He and his possessions cannot be touched unless he gives permission. A violation of this Frank rule will set him off screaming.
The charming Frank has an extraordinary mother named M. M. Banning, or Mimi. She is a famous literary recluse who won a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award when she was 20. Thirty years after its publication, her famous book, Pitched, still sells more than a million copies a year and is listed on every junior high school reading list in America. It was also turned into an Oscar-winning movie.
But when Mimi loses her savings in a bad investment, she’s forced to finally write a second novel. She calls her befrankwithmeeditor, Isaac Vargas, who found her masterpiece in a pile of manuscripts back in the 1970s. Mimi asks him for an assistant who is good with computers and kids, and who can help keep her household running until the book is finished. She wants no Ivy Leaguers or English majors.
In response Mr. Vargas decides to send his 24-year-old assistant, Alice Whitley, to Mimi’s Bel Air mansion. He warns Alice that Mimi can be prickly. Prickly is an understatement: She is rude and gruff, she does not like having a stranger in her house, and she takes out her wrath on the good-natured Alice. Mimi’s redeeming quality is her affection for her peculiar son, Frank.
While the surly Mimi hides out in her office, typing on a typewriter, Alice slowly gets to know the brilliant but challenging Frank. When she sees how he struggles to cope with the real world, she expresses her concerns to Mr. Vargas, who says, “Frank will be okay, Alice. He’s an odd duck, but brilliant children often are. It may take him a while, but someday he’ll figure out how to live in the world of ordinary mortals.”
Be Frank with Me is a story about friendship, love, and acceptance. Frank is an endearing and memorable character. I really enjoyed my time with him and watching his relationship with Alice develop. I highly recommend this sometimes delightful, sometimes sad story. It will appeal to readers who enjoy unusual characters trying to overcome obstacles, such as Don Tillman from The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion or Christopher from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon. The main characters of all these books fall on the Autism spectrum, and their stories tell how they deal with fitting into the world.

–Jo Hansen

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