By Ekta R. Garg
October 19, 2016
Genre: Middle grade fiction
Rated: Bordering on Bookmark it / 3.5 stars
A sixth grader gets caught up in a tangle of lies in her new school after failing to tamp down a set of rumors. When the rumors get exposed for what they are, the girl must figure out how she will keep her new friends and save face while navigating her enriching but sometimes frustrating family relationships. Author Margie Palatini offers middle grade readers a lighthearted, simple read in the pleasant book Isabella for Real.
Isabella Antonelli has a big problem. Within minutes of arriving at her new fancy private school, she meets Emory, Oakleigh, and Anisha who think she’s the daughter of a contessa. They have it from a reliable source that Isabella’s family has a villa in Italy and flies around on a private jet. Their eyes shine in awe as they approach Isabella and initiate a friendship, and they reassure her they will keep her secret so she’s not overwhelmed by the other students.
Even though she tries to set the record straight, Isabella finds herself eventually agreeing with the girls. The trouble is that Isabella’s family doesn’t own a private jet or a villa. The connection to Italy is real, but that’s because her family is Italian. And there is a contessa in Isabella’s family, but she isn’t a real contessa. At one time Isabella’s Aunt Kiki was the star of the popular soap opera Search for Truth, Lies and Love, and on the show Aunt Kiki played a rich contessa who lived in the lap of luxury.
In this day and age of information overload, the fact that anyone could believe that Aunt Kiki really is the contessa stymies Isabella. Clearly Emory, Oakleigh, and Anisha must have stumbled on one of the websites set up by a hardcore fan of the cancelled soap and assumed the fictional world presented by the fan is real. As all the girls begin developing their friendship, it gets harder for Isabella to tell the truth.
It seems like Isabella’s plan to keep up the charade will pan out, until her older cousin, Vincent, asks her for help. Isabella likes her new friends, but her family comes first and she will do anything for them. Vincent is working on a project in one of his college filmmaking courses and wants Isabella to host a series of web videos about their extended family. Despite her initial reluctance, Isabella agrees and talks to Vincent’s camera as the two of them visit different relatives up and down their street. The visits reveal homes that are a far cry from fancy villas, but they also show loving family members who are loud and gregarious and fiercely loyal to one another.
The videos go viral on YouTube, and Isabella instantly realizes her mistake. With her home life on display for anyone to see online, it’s clear that she’s not the daughter of a contessa. Far from it. So what happens now? Will Emory, Oakleigh, and Anisha want to continue their friendship? Has Isabella killed her chances of fitting in at her new school? And why won’t Frankie Domenico from down the street just leave her alone already?
Author Margie Palatini has created an incredibly likeable protagonist in Isabella. Readers in Palatini’s target audience will definitely identify with Isabella’s problem and her insecurities in going to a new school. Isabella’s endearing family will draw in readers like a warm hug.
Adults might complain that some of Palatini’s plot devices reinforce stereotypes, but any stereotype fulfillment is benign. The bigger problem, from a writing standpoint, comes in a story question that Palatini raises a few times in the book. An event in the final scene closes the loop created by that question, but the event feels forced. It also contributes absolutely nothing to the larger story on hand.
Overall, however, Palatini’s book reinforces positive messages and a strong lesson for target readers and does so in a plain way. Where other books try to dress up teachings in fancy words or plots, Palatini comes straight to the point in a way that ends up being refreshing. The final scene aside, I believe Isabella for Real is Bordering on Bookmarking it.