Eleven-year-old Anna Smudge may have wealthy parents, but that doesn't mean her life is easy. For starters, she rarely sees her parents. They are intensely involved with their business, and they seem to have very little to do with their daughter, who is an only child. Anna is bullied at school by Jacob, a fellow classmate, who despises her for no apparent reason and does all he can to get her in trouble. She gets into trouble, though, even without his help - she is very slow at doing things, often running late, and that causes problems for her.
Things begin to change, though, when Jacob falsely accuses her of biting him, and the teacher (without even asking to see the bite mark) sends Anna to the principal, who scolds her without bothering to listen to her side of the story, leaves a message about her "misbehavior" on her father's answering machine, and then sends her to the counselor's office. Instead of the person Anna expects to see, there is a new counselor, a young, pretty woman who listens calmly to Anna, not only making her feel better about herself and her inability to rush and multi-task, but also giving Anna the inspiration to become a psychiatrist herself - after all, Anna is a great listener.
One of Anna's friends prints up business cards, and Anna is set to go. She listens calmly to people who seem to need help, and she finds that she does have a knack for making them feel better. When the bully Jacob grabs Anna's new business cards and throws them to the winds, however, Anna finds all kinds of people from all over the city calling her for help. One of them just happens to be Donny "the Meatball" Fratelli, an escaped convict who is a hit man. His employer is the mysterious Mr. Who - a supposedly fictional crime lord who, it turns out, is all too real. And when Anna secretly erases the principal's incriminating message from her father's answering machine, she inadvertently sets in motion a chain of events that leads to Donny being hired out to kill her own father! Anna needs to act quickly to save his life.
This novel has many aspects that I would typically associate with superhero comic books: the villains are larger than life and often amusing; the characters fall into clear, stereotypical categories, there is a great deal of exaggeration that strains the believability of the story, and the ending has no real narrative conclusion, leaving plenty of room for the next book to pick up where this story left off. Unfortunately, those qualities work fine for comic books, but not, in my opinion, very well for a novel. I do believe my qualms may well be those of an adult, however; most kids will probably enjoy the ride without thinking too much about it. I like my characters to have solid motives so their actions are believable, and I like the narrative to flow from those actions in a way that makes sense.
For example, when Anna's business cards go flying all over the city, it prompts the appearance of a news van at her school the following morning, complete with reporter and cameras to find out who Anna, the professional shrink, actually is. This was a bit baffling. As was the fact that Anna is repeatedly called a professional shrink, but no one every actually pays her. Anna's therapy consists of a few kindhearted words that turn people's lives around instantly, and suddenly everything is all better. And when it is finally revealed who the dreaded Mr. Who actually is, the story goes beyond far-fetched.
I love the idea, though, of these young kids finding a passion for a profession and supporting each other as they follow their dreams. Anna's other friends include a young boy with a love of food who aspires to be a chef, and a girl with a nose for news who dreams of being a reporter. The illustrations are bold and expressive and give the book great appeal. Here is a picture of Donny "the Meatball," one of my favorite characters, because he has hidden depths. I wish there were more of these illustrations to accompany the text.
I enjoyed watching Anna's relationship with her friends develop, as well as the way the effects of her newfound confidence in herself as a shrink influenced the rest of her life. This series will focus on Anna and her other "professional" friends as they band together in an effort to capture the evil Mr. Who. The next installment, due to be published in May 2009, will be Quenton Cohen: Professional Chef.
Anna Smudge, Professional Shrink (Book one in The Professionals series) by MAC; illustrated by Glenn Fabry (Toasted Coconut Media, 2008)