Book Review: How to Stop Your Grownup from Making Bad Decisions
(Full disclosure: Judy Balan, this book’s author, writes our weekly comedic column, First World Problems. But we have promised to set aside our adoration for her scathing wit as a columnist, and review her book as if she were any old writer; Judy would NOT want a puff piece, anyway.)
We have to applaud any story for kids that has the protagonist’s mom dating a rapper. It’s 2015, and Judy Balan would have us believe this is par for the course. (What, you mean your mom never dated a rapper?) And this is one of the best things about this book: Balan shows that in modern India or elsewhere – whether with single parents or joint families – Tolstoy’s famous line about happy families holds true.
Balan’s How To Stop Your Grownup From Making Bad Decisions, the first in her Nina the Philosopher series, is told from the point of view of Nina, a precocious 11-year old, through a series of blog posts. The plot unfolds a bit choppily because of the format, but it works, because after all, it is a child who’s telling the story.
Nina’s family is untraditional, by Indian standards. Her parents are divorced, her mother is dating and working two jobs to support her kids, and there is an “Uncle” in the picture who clearly had a previous romantic entanglement with Mom. (But don’t worry, just as you didn’t catch the whole illegal abortion plot in Dirty Dancing, your 11-year old won’t pick up on the sexual tension simmering between them.) But by other accounts, this is an entirely relatable cast of characters: meddling grandparents, a frosty teenage sister, and an unbearable teacher nicknamed Dig-Shit.
We learn from the start that Nina struggles on many fronts: Dig-Shit is out to get her, her sister, Nikki, is behaving like a premenstrual tiger (read the book and you’ll get the reference), and worst of all, Mom is dating a loser. Nina’s solace is the knowledge that Mom ultimately values her girls above all else, and that she has a great support system in her grandparents and Uncle Ashwin. Tension slowly builds as Dhiraj, the rapper boyfriend, and his son, Polka Dot, grow closer to Mom and threaten the family structure that Nina holds so dear. As it all comes to a head, Nina is forced to use her cunning and ingenuity to plot their ouster from Mom’s (and Nina’s and Nikki’s) life forever. We’re not sure whether we want our kids to learn from her creative determination, or cringe at the fact that Nina is teaching them some great lessons in parental manipulation.
We can’t say who the intended audience for this book is: Is it Nina’s peers, who will relate to her “problems,” or is Balan holding up a mirror for their parents, who could do with the occasional introspective reality check? Either way, the book is funny, it’s different, it teaches some valuable lessons to both generations, and we’ll definitely be reading the sequel hoping to see Nina take on some serious pre-teen angst. And, of course, to see what happens between Mom and Uncle Ashwin ….