The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

May 15, 2010

Jacque Gage, book review: Award winning title’s travel stories impress

By Jacque Gage
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — Each year the Missouri Association of School Librarians sponsors several awards for children’s literature. The judges in each of these contests are not distinguished panels of scholars or someone from the proverbial ivory tower, but the readers themselves -- children.

The Show-Me Award is chosen by children in first through third grade, the Mark Twain Award is for fourth through sixth grade, the Truman Award selectors are sixth- through eighth-grade students, and the Gateway Award is selected by high school students. Each list of nominated titles has provided me some interesting reading through the years.

This is the second year for the Truman Award, and “Carpe Diem,” by Autumn Cornwell, was one of the nominees (and third-place winner).

I chose to listen to this book on CD during my daily commute, but almost didn’t finish the book because I didn’t like the narrator. But my “stick to it until you’ve finished your job well” mentality kicked in, and I’m glad I finished it.

“Carpe Diem” is the coming-of-age story of Vassar Spore, an overachieving daughter of overbearing parents. Her mother is a life coach and her father an efficiency expert. Everything in their lives revolves around Vassar being high school valedictorian and gaining admission into the Ivy League College whose name she bears.

Repeated over and over in the book is the mantra, “5.3 is the new 4.0.” To achieve her goal as valedictorian, Vassar has her summer planned completely to include advanced placement classes and advanced-advanced placement classes.

However, eccentric Grandma Gerd blackmails her parents with “the big secret” into “allowing” Vassar spend the summer in Southeast Asia, trekking and traveling all over with her.

During these treks and travels, Vassar meets an amazing array of characters: Hanks, a Malaysian cowboy wanna-be, complete with fake, glued on chops; Mr. Tee-Tee, the ear nibbler; Stick Girl; and many more.

Vassar gets herself into one scrape after another, and there were many times they made me chuckle out loud. Throughout the summer, she tried to discover “the big secret” which, when she does, turns her world upside down, yet causes her to grow, mature, and become less one-dimensional.

Her travels lead her through many different southeast Asian countries, so parts of the book read like a mini-travelogue. We can see the sights of the cities and towns through her eyes.

As the author described the unfamiliar sights and sounds Vassar experienced, I was disappointed she never mentioned the matter of human trafficking, which is so prevalent in Siem Reap,  Cambodia -- where Vassar has a run-in with Cambodian police.

(Personal interjection: The reason for my disappointment is a local organization, Rapha House, has made me acutely aware of many sorts of human trafficking taking place around the world today. A visit to their gallery at 118 S. Main St, Joplin or their Web site,, is unforgettable, and in my opinion, a necessity.)

After reading the book I visited the author’s Web site, I was delighted and amazed to read that the basis of many of Vassar’s misadventures had their origin in the true-life adventures of the author -- embellished some, but with true roots.

All in all, this is a delightful story with some laugh-out-loud adventures suitable for middle school and up. Just stick to the written version.