Anna Smudge: Professional Shrink is the first book in The Professionals series by author MAC. It's a book for slightly older kids (10 and up), but features gorgeous, textured black and white illustrations at intervals throughout the book. The story begins with eleven-year-old Anna Smudge being treated with respect by the Chief of Police and asked to tell her story. The action then flashes back nine days, to a daring prison escape by a large hit man. Most of the story that follows is from Anna's perspective (third person point of view), but occasional sections follow the path of the hit man. Naturally, his path intersects with Anna's.
Anna is the only child of wealthy, distant parents. She lives in a nice apartment in New York, but her primary caregiver is her building's doorman, Percy. She attends an upscale school, where she has two best friends (Quenton Cohen, "a thin black boy" who likes to cook, and Rachel Riley, who talks incessantly). As for Anna, she's highly self-critical because she always does things slowly (her nickname is "sludge"), and she runs into problems with a couple of wealthy bullies at school. Her life takes a turn for the better, however, when an insightful guidance counselor suggests that Anna has a special gift for listening, and would make a good therapist. Anna immediately sets out to help people by listening.
Anna soon finds, however, that some of her clients' problems stem from the mysterious Mr. Who, a boss of mob bosses, who many think doesn't exist at all. Anna and her friends find themselves caught in the middle of a dangerous power struggle, and have to identify and stop Mr. Who before he kills someone Anna cares about.
This book is an over the top romp, with characters ranging from a hit man who is obsessed with chocolate cannolis to "a naked man covered in seaweed, talking in rhymes". There's a dangerous bioweapon, an underwater room made of glass, and a blackmail scheme involving homework. And, of course, a kid who is a "professional shrink", with clients from all over New York. The hit man, Donny, is surprisingly likable, but all of the characters have comic elements (further enhanced by the dramatic, full-page illustrations). There are also real-life concerns of middle school kids, such as neglectful parents, and fitting in at school.
Many of the book's descriptive passages are entertaining. For example:
"Simon Spektor had straight dark hair that lay flat around his head like a bowl, extra-thick glasses, and a clip-on bowtie that his parents no doubt thought was cute but had no clue that something like that would ruin their son's social life. Not that Simon had a social life that Anna knew of." (Chapter 3)
"This cannot be happening to me! Like being eleven and having to take gym isn't hard enough?" (Chapter 6)
"Just as the angry words had left her mouth, Anna wished she could gather them all back and swallow them up... Was she now a juvenile delinquent? She glanced back up at the principal. He looked as if he had swallowed a pigeon." (Chapter 3)
I love the "swallowed a pigeon".
But really, it's the general tone of the book that makes it so readable. Matter-of-fact treatment of dramatic and sometimes ludicrous events. Anna and her friends are just quirky enough to be memorable, without being off-putting in any way. Glenn Fabry's illustrations also help to draw the reader into the book - they positively leap from the page.
I think that Anna Smudge: Professional Shrink would be an excellent summer reading choice for reluctant readers in later elementary or middle school, especially for fans of mysteries and thrillers. There's a surprising twist at the end of the book that paves the way for future installments in the series (which will presumably feature Anna's friends using their special talents, much as she uses her "professional shrink" abilities in this book). I think that girls and boys alike will enjoy this title, and I look forward to The Professionals' future adventures.
Publisher: Toasted Coconut Media
Publication Date: May 2, 2008
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher
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See also MAC's summer reading tips
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.