Henri Haltiwanger is the founder of his own dog-walking business, a valued member of the debate team and a popular kid at New York’s prestigious FATE Academy. He attributes his success to his capital-S Smiles and his carefully cultivated ability to charm just about anyone. That ability is especially important now, as Henri, a first-generation Haitian American, counts down the days until he receives his Columbia University acceptance letter, which will fulfill his parents’ “American dream” for him. But when a classmate named Corinne begins blackmailing him into helping her improve her social status, Henri discovers that his trademark charm may not be his ticket to the American dream after all, and that his dream may not be exactly what he thought it was.
As he did in his debut novel, the William C. Morris Award-winning The Field Guide to the North American Teenager, Ben Philippe once again places readers directly inside the mind of a lovable but flawed protagonist. Henri’s conspiratorial and, yes, charming narration feels like he’s letting us in on secret after secret as he navigates the challenges of senior year, college applications, family pressure and friendships. Henri makes some serious mistakes, and it’s satisfying to watch him evolve into a more honest, open and vulnerable person.
Philippe has a true knack for developing rich casts of supporting characters who bring his protagonists’ worlds to life. Here, this includes Henri’s devoted parents, his sneaker-obsessed best friend, Ming, as well as the students and faculty who populate his high school experience. And of course, there’s Corinne, an academic dynamo who marches to the beat of her own drum, reminiscent of other ambitious yet socially awkward teens such as Paris Geller of “Gilmore Girls” or Rushmore’s Max Fischer. Philippe renders every character as a human being with their own aspirations and imperfections.
Give Charming as a Verb to readers looking for a dynamic YA romp, a touch of romance and the permission to question whether what they’ve always dreamed of is truly what they want.