Some people are born lucky, with great wealth, healthy and loving family, fine physiques, and bubbly personalities. Meanwhile, most of us are lucky to get a portion of this spread to use to our advantage. Henri Haltiwanger, the main character of Ben Phillippe’s alluring young adult novel Charming is a Verb, realizes and has been using the latter two of his luck list to his advantage since his acceptance into the prestigious, and fictitious, Fine Arts Technical Education Academy in New York City. It’s through the unspooling of Henri’s final semester in high school that he learns how the entirety of the aforementioned list has shaped his worldview — for good and bad.

Henri Haltiwanger is, for all intents and purposes, a typical first generation Haitian-American New York teenager. He takes his parents’ push for academic greatness at a highly competitive high school seriously and maintains good grades. He uses his good looks and charm to make all the right social moves, even joining the school’s debate team as required and performing well under pressure. He so values the weight of an earned dollar that he’s set up a website where he’s the exclusive dog walker for a booming business because it lends him an air of legitimacy after failing to earn customers when posting on Craigslist. Not all business and grades, Henri makes his love of sneakers an art — taking creative photos and prints of designs and using them as bedroom decor. He even connects to his closest friend, Ming, through their shared love of the sneaker hunt which takes them on adventures throughout NYC. If you ask Henri, his main issue is the uncertainty surrounding college acceptance. For as long as he can remember, it’s always been his father’s dream that Henri attend Columbia University. The family once held fond memories of visiting the campus and Henri found himself sharing his father’s dream along his schooling experience.

Just when Henri thinks he’s juggling his final semester with as much grace as an hyper-stressed 17-year-old can manage, along comes a complication. Her name: Corinne Troy. The complication? She’s figured out his facade of a business and blackmails him into helping her build the social points she direly needs in order to obtain the recommendation letter she needs to get into Princeton University. To my intense relief, this is a one-time transaction that lends this story a more original turn than the retelling of a She’s All That-esq storyline — which the author gives us a nod to within the story. What comes next is a refreshing tale of what it means to be in a transitional stage of life, fully aware of the fleeting time still available in life as is and how little time there is for you to live within the future — with the added bonus of a cute romance and adorable doggos.

For Henri, this means examining what it is he wants in life and how he plans to get it. This is easier said than done as his pride often gets in the way — especially after some of his greatest fears are realized in the assessments that some very important people make of his character. In the end, we see how attending an academically rigorous and competitive school primarily attended by wealthy New Yorkers has given Henri a hyper-consciousness of his shortcomings in light of his uber privileged peers and how this hyper-consciousness causes him to move. Does he make poor decisions? Sure, who among us hasn’t? If anything this is a book that shows us the temporary setbacks of mistakes along as their crucial consequences. It’s a book for fevered overachievers, forever failures, and everyone in-between. I definitely recommend this as a must-read for anyone seeking a better understanding of what the pressures of high school can do to the psyche to even the most well-meaning of us — kid (explicit language warning withstanding) and parent alike.

5 Quotes of Note from Charming as a Verb

  • It’s kind of cool how so many people in the city have a single, soul-consuming passion that very often looks nothing like the rest of their lives.
  • All seniors…dealing with the looming trauma of graduation. There’s something new ahead, of course, but life as we know it is in countdown mode.
  • Either you’re exceptional or a nobody. No permission to be anything in between. It’s BS.
  • There’s no grand tour; make yourself at home. Go have a poo or something.
  • All children are charming as an adjective, but you’re charming as a verb.