Be Frank With Me

“One-in-a-million”: Raising an exceptional child (Los Angeles, 2009-10): For every parent raising a child endowed with unusual abilities – and the teachers, classmates, friends, family members, and others who nurture and cross paths with that child – Be Frank with Me is a gift.

Wrapped in a catchy turquoise, top hat/monocle cover (a tip-off), Julia Claiborne Johnson’s sparkling debut has a big heart filled with wit, charm, and poignancy as it tips its hat to a “one-in-a-million” nine-year-old boy named Frank, who lives in an affluent neighborhood outside Hollywood and is a “devotee of film.”

Johnson also lives in LA, with a husband who writes comedy and has spent time on Hollywood sets ( Aren’t we lucky all that rubbed off on her? But make no mistake, her novel also offers a potent message about the challenges of parenting an exceptionally gifted child who displays many traits that from a layman’s viewpoint fall within the high-functioning spectrum of autism, or Asperger’s syndrome. She doesn’t label Frank, but if you know a kid like him, you’ll recognize how exhausting, exasperating, amazing – and endearing – someone like Frank can be.

Frank’s genius (his IQ is higher than 99.7% of the population) lies in his extraordinary language proficiency, photographic-memory, and passion for details. His Asperger-like attributes include: he can’t stand being touched (except by his mother) or have his things touched; tantrums and rocking motions when he gets anxious; doesn’t make eye contact; speaks in a flat, monotone voice; takes things literally; lacks social skills with kids his own age; sleepwalks; and is sensitive to textures.

The first thing to keep in mind about Frank is that he gravitates toward happiness (“a facial expression that almost came naturally to him”), so the overall feel of the novel is light-hearted. An example of how this plays out against stereotyping is that Frank isn’t pained by textures like fabric. Listen to how he good-naturedly and cleverly describes the fabric of a girl’s clothing, something he attends to meticulously:

“rayon, a wood-based fiber invented in 1855 but not popularized until the 1920s because until then it was highly combustible. Her rayon kilt feels like cashmere but is more suitable for playground wear as it is machine washable.”

The plot pushes Frank’s development to extreme by placing him in a secluded “glass mansion” high atop the hills of Bel Air overlooking Hollywood, with his reclusive one-book literary phenomenon of a single mother, Mimi Banning. Translation: he’s watched plenty of movies on TV so he’s a fount of knowledge about classical Hollywood moviemaking, legendary stars and their wardrobe accoutrements. He spouts information “as if he were reading off a teleprompter.” Since his mother has had the money and eccentricities to indulge him, his everyday attire – humorous, outlandish, gentlemanly, old-fashioned — doesn’t fit in. No wonder he gets stared at a lot.

Enter his literary sensation mother whom we meet in mid-life, a victim of a Ponzi scheme, forced to write a second novel. Mimi has also lost her immediate family; hides from the outside world and still-besieging fans behind a privacy wall Frank’s didn’t-quite-graduate Juilliard piano teacher, Zander, helped to build. Zander is terrific with Frank, and he’s a jack-of-all-trades but he’s unreliable, popping in and out of their lives. So Mimi reaches out to the only person she fully trusts, her Manhattan publisher, Isaac Vargas. A second novel, thirty years later, would be an instant bestseller, so of course Vargas is thrilled. He also knows “prickly” Mimi will need an assistant. Mimi outlines her requirements: “no Ivy Leaguers” and someone “good with kids.” Turns out the only qualification that matters is to take care of, entertain, and protect accident prone, into-everything Frank.

Twenty-four-year old Alice from Nebraska, who works for Mr. Vargas, beautifully fits the bill. She’s not a complainer (“Pollyanna”), an understatement! In fact, while Frank is obviously the star of this show, unshakable Alice, who is remarkably tenaciousness and thick-skinned at absorbing Mimi’s constant verbal abuse, Frank’s shenanigans, and dealing with capricious Zander, quietly also steals the show. This is to say that Mimi’s difficulties with motherhood are subtler, whereas Alice’s trials-and-tribulations and calmness cannot be missed!

By now you know Frank is a dapper dresser. His attire includes a smoking jacket, tailcoat, “three-piece glen-plaid suit,” and a “severe charcoal pinstripe number, complete with pocket square;” his accessories (besides the aforementioned top hat and monocle) include an aviator’s cap, bow tie, watch chain, pince-nez, cuff links. He evokes celebrities like Clarence Darrow, Sherlock Holmes, Tony Curtis, E.F. Hutton, Dr. Livingston, detective Nick Charles. One of my favorite lines comes early on when Alice is getting acquainted with Frank, gently admonishing him: “It’s not enough to dress like a gentleman … You need to act like one, too.”

What comes out of Frank’s mouth will delight: singular vocabulary like verisimilitude and homonym; sentences like “Allons-y is what the French Foreign Legion say when what they really mean is ‘Let’s blow this Popsicle stand, my friends!’”; and lengthier discourse like this one expressed while riding with Alice down Sunset Boulevard:

“the boulevard we just left behind, not the movie, originated as an eighteenth-century cattle path that followed the rim of the Los Angeles Basin and ran from the original Spanish settlement in downtown Los Angeles all the way to the ocean.”

Still, nothing delights more than the “joy and intensity and sweet, pure love” he feels for his Mama. That’s when he sees her, which given the stakes, are rare occurrences these days. When they do come together, it’s often precipitated by disastrous incidents Frank innocently instigates.

Frank may remind you of an amusing, charming younger version of Don Tillman in the bestselling The Rosie Project. Genetics professor, Don, also had undiagnosed Asperger-like challenges. You’ll smile, laugh, marvel, and adore Frank like we felt about Don, but Frank tugs at your heartstrings tighter because this “Little Prince” is just a child.

Like The Rosie Project sequel, The Rosie Effect, I’d love to see how life turns out for Frank. Mimi, and all parents whose children are different (and not), worry about their future. Frank is loved and cherished, his specialness appreciated, so we’re optimistic that his future will shine brightly like The Little Prince’s stars.


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