This summer Penumbra Online hosted a Book Club to help promote our summer edition. We decided to select a book that celebrated our summer series theme of self-love. We chose a book that has self-love and all of its complexities at the center of it, Fat Chance, Charlie Vega (2021) by Crystal Maldonado. The contemporary YA novel is about Charlie Vega a high schooler who is a hopeless romantic. The only problem? She has never been in love. All of that changes when she starts her first budding romance. The novel intricately encapsulates the ache of first love and heartbreak so well that it feels familiar to the reader. While on the surface the novel sounds like a simple YA romance, the novel is much more complex and poignant. It delves into much deeper themes such as self-love, grief, body positivity, and what it means to be a mixed race Latina. Maldonado does an excellent job balancing the lightheartedness of the YA genre with the importance of the topics she covers. While never completely abandoning the YA genre Maldonado dives into the realities of what it means to be a modern day teenager with all of its complexities.
When I first picked up Fat Chance, Charlie Vega I expected a lighthearted, fun, and easy book and while it certainly is all of those things the story is so much more. The novel captures the feeling of youth without the rose colored façade of youth that most YA novels craft. Maldonado’s heroine, Charlie Vega is a flawed and fleshed out character. Charlie carries pain from the loss of her father and struggles with being constantly compared to her best friend Amelia. Charlie’s character is authentic because the truth is most people by the time they reach Charlie’s age have faced hardships. Teenagers are not exempt from pain in fact most the weight of their pain everyday. Perhaps the most heartbreaking and realistic aspect of the novel is Charlie’s relationship with her mother. Charlie and her mother are incomprehensibly different and without her father to bridge the gap between them they struggle to connect. The novel does not shy away and captures both Charlie and her mother having low moments with each other. While the reader is often sympathetic with Charlie her mother is never pigeonholed into the villain role either. In the end, their relationship is not tied up neatly with a bow but it makes the novel feel more authentic. By subverting the genre's tropes Maldonado produces a realistic YA novel.
Maldonado also sets her novel apart with the use of realistic representation. With Charlie, Maldonado displays the struggle to find acceptance. Charlie is a mixed race Latina straddling two worlds and like many teenagers she struggles to find her footing in either world. Her disconnect with her mother over her mother’s obsession with diets, has her feeling uncomfortable in her own home. Yet, she has lost her relationship with her father’s family after his death and as a result she lost touch with her cultural roots. Charlie’s unease in her own family is juxtaposed with Amelia’s comfortability in any situation. While Amelia may have an air of ease in any environment she also faces realistic struggles as a Black Queer teenager. Charlie and Amelia’s different reactions to similar situations display the fact that despite different outlooks, acknowledging that we all struggle can connect people. Tangible and well represented characters are just one of the many reasons to read Fat Chance, Charlie Vega.
With witty dialogue, layered characters, and important themes Maldonado’s novel is a YA novel that stands out. The novel is a fun escape with layers of importance that sneak up on the reader the further you get into the story. If you want a novel that is a relaxing read without being superficial Maldonado’s Fat Chance, Charlie Vega is the perfect read for you. Join Charlie Vega as she has her first chance to fall in love and read Maldonado’s exciting novel.
If you are interested in Book Club, Penumbra Online is hosting a Fall Book Club starting in October. To learn more about Book Club click on our Clubs and Recommendations page.
A few weeks ago, my daughter and I were having a rough day. I was overwhelmed with work and school and she was grouchy and impatient. Despite my attempts to fix the mood we continued to fall further down the rabbit hole parents and guardians know all too well, that seems to only end in frustration and parental guilt. As I guilted myself for not being a better, more relaxed, or more present parent I decided to extend an olive branch. I closed my laptop, grabbed a bag of popcorn, and offered to snuggle and watch a show. My daughter and I are vastly different. I love to read, she loves to dance. I love sports, she loves baking. One thing we both have in common? We love to watch movies, especially musicals. So when I extended the olive branch, I turned on a show I had a hunch we would both love, Julie and the Phantoms: a Netflix show about a teen girl (Julie) who has lost her love for music after the loss of her mother. How does she get it back? With the help of three ghosts (the phantoms) who only Julie can see except when they perform together. The show is a heartwarming dramedy that is easy to watch. We spent hours in bed watching and talking about the show, with the best part being Julie and the Phantoms was not just a show that I watched for my daughter, but a show that I enjoyed watching with her.
As I reflected, I thought about how the show was able to keep both my daughter and myself entertained, and I realized that Julie and the Phantoms teeters between being youthful while also dealing with very adult issues. The show centers around the deep theme of grief, but it handles it with all the fun of a teen dramedy. The songs are catchy enough to make a kid sing along, but they are poignant enough for adults to enjoy as well. In particular Julie played by Madison Reyes and Luke played by Charlie Gillespie have the show's best moments duet wise and acting wise.
While the musical numbers are powerful, perhaps what is most impactful about the show is the way it is so well rounded with its representation. Julie and her family are Latinx and her identity, while never discussed at length, is interwoven into the show. For example, her father and aunt often speak in Spanglish to Julie and her brother. While Julie never has a conversation about the importance of Spanglish in Latinx culture, she lives it on screen. Another example of how the show handles representation is the character of Alex (Owen Patrick Joyner). Alex is gay and he has a romantic storyline with another ghost, Willie (Booboo Stewart). While Alex and Willie have an adorable arc, the fact that Alex is gay is not a storyline at all; in fact, it wasn't until I watched the show for the second time that I caught Luke reference it to Alex in episode 2. As a parent, the show encapsulates why all types of representation are so important. While it is important to tell BIPOC and LGBTQ+ stories that are centered around that experience alone, there is huge value in everyday representation as well. Julie and the Phantoms gave me the ability to converse with my daughter on matters like race, grief, and sexuality in an organic manner that allowed me to take the wheel and steer the conversation. The show doesn't tell watchers what the Latinx experience is, it shows it. So when my daughter pointed out that Julie's dad said a Spanish word she hears me use, I had the ability to steer the conversation towards the importance of language in our culture. Or when my daughter told me she thought Alex "had a crush" on Willie, I was able to remind her of what she has been taught about love in all its forms. These things were received as typical by my daughter because it is her normal. She has a Latina mother, LGBTQ+ family members, and is surrounded by people of various backgrounds and ethnicities. Her life, like Julie's, is full of colors and seeing that on screen is important for her growing up, and as a parent I am grateful to see a show that has echoes of our own family in it.
Of course, the show is not just for kids or families. I would argue it can be enjoyed by any demographic. If you grew up on Disney musicals this show will speak to you (It's director Kenny Ortega is a Disney legend). If you are interested in supernatural elements, the show has something for you. Or, if you just want something you can watch and sing along with while you clean, this show has something for everyone. The only negative I could find about the show was the fact that nine episodes just do not feel like enough. I found myself wondering why the show didn't get the typical 10 episodes most shows get. I would have loved for the show to have the time to show more about the death of Julie's mother and the year that followed. Or if the show had just one more episode, the jam packed finale could have been explained in much more detail. That being said, I will keep my fingers crossed that these questions will be answered in Season 2 (if Netflix every announces it). So, next time you have some free time, put on Julie and the Phantoms and enjoy the fun.
Julie and the Phantoms can be found on Netflix.