I bought “Austenland” on DVD last fall. It's one of my happy place movies. Unsurprisingly, I've watched it several times already this year, this tumultuous year in which so much is going on that I was on Chapter Three of “Kind of a Big Deal” before I thought to myself, "This story feels like ‘Austenland.'" I flipped to the acknowledgments and spotted screenwriter and director Jerusha Hess's name. Well DUH, Alethea. At which point, I just relaxed and let Shannon Hale take me away to that safe, happy place again.
Josie Sergakis — stage name "Josie Pie" — is an 18-year-old mixed-Greek American who was a very successful actress as a child, and has had it rough ever since she left high school. (As a mixed-Greek American former child actress [television and stage] myself, I completely related to this main character!) Josie Pie was a big fish in her small Arizona high school — but after tanking her first big Broadway audition, she suddenly has no idea what to do with her life. So she follows her nannying job from the pressures of NYC to the great outdoors of Missoula, Mont.
Thankfully, she loves her charge — 5-year-old Mia — and she's got some time. The two of them come across a bookstore in town, where Josie meets handsome Deo. Though she's still pining for Justin, the love she left behind, she lets Deo sell her a book anyway. And when a trio of nannies at the playground poo-poo the choice as a trashy romance, Josie finds a bench far away, opens the book, and falls in. Literally.
Suddenly, she's in a carriage in 18th century France, dressed as a servant woman, complete with corset, while the snooty nannies have become rich passengers. They are set upon by a Bandit King (Justin!) and his band of thieves, most of whom resemble people Josie has encountered in real life.
What I assumed at this point was that this adventure would carry Josie through the rest of the book, and we'd pop back to the real world in the last few chapters. Wow, was I wrong! After a few more pages, Josie falls out of the book again.
She finishes the book that night, but doesn't experience the same effect. She stops by the bookstore the next day, picks a new title without even glancing at the genre, and takes Mia to the playground to try again. Was it the bench? The glasses? The tea? Or was it just a fluke? But Josie is pulled in once more, this time to a post-apocalyptic horror. Oops!
There are many books after that, and the plot wanders a bit, but so many strange and wonderful things happen at every twist and turn, you'll be happy to wander with Josie. Where is this new book taking Josie today? Does it matter? We're in love with this moment right now and not worrying about the future — and maybe Josie is, too. Each book she descends into seems to teach her something, and even if it's not obvious where the story is going, we're in it for the long haul.
Josie is a beautiful, complicated character who has a lot to learn. Re-emerging from each book makes her see her "real" world differently; shifts her perspective ever so slightly, and makes her feel like maybe anything — from wielding magic to fabulous athletic ability — is possible. In the real world, Josie wavers between not having enough confidence and going over the top. Only in books does she seem to be able to find the right balance, get the guy, and save the world. Josie can do anything — inside the books. And so can readers, if we keep our minds open.
“Kind of a Big Deal” is a ton of fun, and I wish I could give it a 100 percent glowing review, but I'm afraid I can't. It has to do with Josie's Greekness, or lack thereof. And her Greek heritage is kind of pivotal to the story.
I wasn't raised super Greeky-Greek. I didn't go to Greek school and learn all the festival dances. And I'm not saying there aren't any Greek grandmothers out there, like Josie's, who tell mythology stories to their grandkids at bedtime, but it would be like an Italian nonna being obsessed with Jupiter and Juno. All the yiayias I know are far more likely to tell stories about the family, the family's restaurant, food in general, and the lives of the Greek saints.
The only thing truly Greek about Josie is her last name. By the climax, I found myself wishing Josie just hadn't been Greek at all. “Kind of a Big Deal” will make a great film, and I'll definitely be in line to see it, but I do hope they talk to a few more folks with Greek DNA before they write the script.
In the meantime, there are other important questions to be asked. Like: What's your favorite story? Who would you be today if you could? And why can't you?
Alethea Kontis is a voice actress and award-winning author of over 20 books for children and teens.
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