One of our recommended books for 2020 is Daring Darleen by Anne Nesbet


Queen of the Screen

Lights! Camera! Kidnapping?

It’s 1914, and Darleen Darling’s film adventures collide with reality when a fake kidnapping set up by her studio becomes all too real. Suddenly Darleen finds herself in the hands of dastardly criminals who have just nabbed Miss Victorine Berryman, the poor-little-rich-girl heiress of one of America’s largest fortunes. Soon real life starts to seem like a bona fide adventure serial, complete with dramatic escapes, murderous plots, and a runaway air balloon. Will Darleen and Victorine be able to engineer their own happily-ever-after, or will the villains be victorious?

When a publicity stunt goes terribly wrong,

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Lights! Camera! Kidnapping?

It’s 1914, and Darleen Darling’s film adventures collide with reality when a fake kidnapping set up by her studio becomes all too real. Suddenly Darleen finds herself in the hands of dastardly criminals who have just nabbed Miss Victorine Berryman, the poor-little-rich-girl heiress of one of America’s largest fortunes. Soon real life starts to seem like a bona fide adventure serial, complete with dramatic escapes, murderous plots, and a runaway air balloon. Will Darleen and Victorine be able to engineer their own happily-ever-after, or will the villains be victorious?

When a publicity stunt goes terribly wrong, twelve-year-old Darleen Darling, star of the silent film era, must defeat villains both on screen and off in this edge-of-your-seat adventure.

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  • Candlewick Press
  • Hardcover
  • March 2020
  • 368 Pages
  • 9781536206197

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About Anne Nesbet

Anne Nesbet is the author of Daring DarleenAnne Nesbet is the author of the historical middle-grade novels Cloud and Wallfish and The Orphan Band of Springdale, as well as three fantasy novels for middle-graders. Her books have received numerous accolades, including multiple starred reviews and appearances on many best book and notables lists. A professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Anne Nesbet lives with her family in the San Francisco Bay Area.


Daring Darleen, Queen of the Screen has that rare combination of rich historical detail, page-turning action, and engaging (vibrant! ebullient!) voice that keeps you up way past your bedtime. Come for the fascinating window into early silent films; stay for narrow escapes, family secrets, nefarious villains, and a deep, authentic friendship between two resourceful girls who bond over lost mothers, the promise of the future, and good cocoa.” —J. Anderson Coats, author of The Green Children of Woolpit

“Fabulous female characters, tender friendships, a fascinating setting, and a page-turning plot, all in one. Anne Nesbet has a brilliant lightness of style that makes the whole book sparkle.” —Ann Braden, author of The Benefits of Being an Octopus

“Film studies professor Nesbet writes her intrepid heroine with swashbuckling verve and sweet familial affection, incorporating extensive knowledge of early-20th-century filmmaking into a well-paced, gripping tale of staying true to oneself while stretching limitations.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Packed with smart dialogue, plucky characters, and dastardly villains. Just like Darleen—a spunky blend of darling and daring.” Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Discussion Questions

1. Describe Darleen, her background, and her personality using details and incidents from the novel. What is her work in the movies like? How does she feel about it? How has it changed over the years?

2. What is Darleen’s father like? How do his actions reveal his values and personality? What is his work, and why is he good at it? How does he feel about Darleen’s work in the movies? How does he treat Victorine?

3. Explain what happened to Darleen’s mother and how she is still a presence in the novel. What does Darleen remember about her mother? How does the girl feel similar to her? What is the connection between Madame Blaché and Darleen’s mother? If possible, watch the short film Annabelle, Butterfly Dance, mentioned in the Author’s Note (page 354) and relate it to Darleen’s mother.

4. How did Darleen’s extended family end up making movies? Describe their business and the Matchless studio. What role does each member of the family, including Darleen’s uncles and aunt, play in the movie business? How does the financial situation of their business figure in the plot?

5. What’s your impression of Jasper from the opening scene of the story? Why do you think he’s so mean to Darleen? Why don’t Darleen’s aunt and uncles notice how Jasper treats Darleen? What is his family background? What role does he play in the kidnapping?

6. Together Darleen and Victorine face a series of dangers. How do the girls survive each peril? What does each girl fear most? How do they handle their fears? Victorine says that her grandmother respected fear (as “an instinct meant to save us”) but warned Victorine that “when our rational brains are telling us one thing, and irrational fear is shouting something else, it is usually best to listen to the quieter voice of reason” (page 120). Is that wise advice, do you think? When is fear helpful, and when is it dangerous?

7. According to Victorine, “lying always matters” (page 68). Why does she have such strong feelings about telling the truth? Does Darleen agree with Victorine’s belief? Give examples of when this becomes a problem in the story and how the girls deal with it.

8. Who is Madame Blaché in the novel, and how is she important to the story? What is going on when the girls first meet her? When does she appear again? Why do you think she is so willing to help them? What does the Author’s Note tell you about the real-life Madame Alice Guy Blaché?

9. Victorine’s grandmother described her as “an onion sort of person” (page 160). What did her grandmother mean by that? What kind of vegetable or fruit does Victorine compare Darleen to, and how does Darleen react? What vegetable or fruit are you like, and why?

10. What does Fort Lee look like to Darleen when she takes Victorine there? What makes it different from other small towns? What does the Author’s Note add to your knowledge about Fort Lee? Describe the different sections of the Matchless studio and what goes on in each section. How does Victorine respond to the studio and to Darleen’s home?

11. Compare what you know about today’s movies with what you learn about early movies in this novel. What are some major differences? In what ways are they similar? How does Aunt Shirley try to generate publicity for the photoplays? How is publicity created now for movies and movie stars?


Chapter 1

Safe as Houses

Sometimes the real danger is not what you thought it would be at all. Real danger likes to curl itself up small and hide away just out of sight so that it can catch you by surprise.

Darleen had not yet had this insight at the time our story begins. She was busy dangling off the edge of a cliff, hundreds of feet above a wild river. What’s more, her nose was prickling unpleasantly in the cold, and a masked villain was brandishing a knife and threatening to send her plummeting down into the churning waves below.

Under ordinary circumstances, that would be enough danger for anyone. But Darleen’s circumstances were not in the least bit ordinary.

For instance: it was Darleen’s own uncles who had just tied her up in those large and showy ropes and lowered her (feet first, thank goodness) right over the lip of the rocky cliffs, and while they did so, they had said incongruous things like “There you go, dear! Safe as houses!”

Safe as houses!

Perhaps not, thought Darleen. She was twisting slightly as the rope shifted in the wind (not a pleasant feeling), so she kept catching glimpses of birds sailing above the shining river so very far below her dangling self, and then other glimpses, when the rope turned, of the crinkly rocks of the cliff only inches from her cold nose, and occasionally even third or fourth glimpses of redheaded Uncle Charlie with his megaphone, shouting directions from the out-jutting boulder where her Uncle Dan (whose hair was the color of his voice: a quiet brown) was cranking the little handle on the side of the great box on legs that was the moving picture camera.

A camera makes everything it looks at un-ordinary! And yet Darleen had been doing something quite ordinary and everyday (for her) as she dangled from her rope: she had been worrying about her Papa.

Her Papa had made her a tasty bowl of oatmeal and jam that morning. “Strength for my chickee,” he liked to say before long filming days. And he had tied a ribbon in her

hair with his clever, callused, loving hands. They had eaten their breakfast as they always did, seated at the scarred old table in the kitchen of their tiny house in Fort Lee, under the old photo of Papa and Mama and baby Darleen, all huddled together like birds in the happiest of nests, and her father had said what he always said before they went off to the Matchless studios, across the street (where once there had been cornfields, in Papa’s farming years): “Feet on the ground, my darling Dar! Don’t fly away!”

“Yes, Papa,” she had promised, as she did every day. “Feet on the ground” was their family motto: Papa’s heart had lost too much of itself already when Mama had flown away due to inflammation of the lungs.

Sometimes when Darleen was younger and shorter, she would pull a chair over to the kitchen wall and climb up to stare at that photograph of the Darlings taken so many years ago, in 1906 or 1907. The three of them were posed in front of scenery with palm trees painted on it, her Papa in a borrowed jacket and hat, her Mama in a stiff sort of dress, softened by bunches of lace around her throat, and a very happy, very small Darleen perched on a stool in front of them, holding on to her parents’ hands. Darleen never spent much time staring at her younger self, who looked like a mound of ruffles topped off with an extra portion of light brown curls. It was the other two faces that called to her so: the one belonging to her Papa, so young and so glad and so obviously trying not to laugh (because it would have blurred the photograph), and the face of her Mama, whose eyes were brimming with love and yet always seemed a little sad, too, as if she already knew that she would fly away one day and leave two hearts aching from the lack of her.

You would never think that the woman with the sad and loving eyes had once been a dancer on tightropes in the circus! But she had! She had been Loveliest Luna Lightfoot (that’s what the old posters said, rolled up in the corner of the broom closet), and she had come down from those high places to marry Papa and become Darleen’s dear Mama and try to grow roses around their little farmhouse in Fort Lee. She had done that out of love: kept her feet on the ground. And now only Darleen was left to stay true to that promise, and to keep the wounded pieces of her father’s heart bound carefully together. But it occurred to her now that this current business of dangling from a cliff did not seem much at all like keeping her feet on the ground.

She didn’t mind on her own behalf — to be honest, Darleen was tired of everything in her life being always “safe as houses”— but suddenly she found herself thinking, What would Papa say when he saw the pictures emerging from the chemical vats in his laboratory that evening or tomorrow? This was Episode Six of The Dangers of Darleen, and her father, truth be told, hadn’t much cared for any part of Episodes One through Five. He didn’t even like her walking on the tops of trains or jumping from car to car. And that had really, truly been safe as houses compared with dangling above the Hudson River.

“Not quite the quiet cottage life we dream of, Darleeny,” he liked to say. “But we’ll get there when the money’s a little better. We’ll retire you from danger and smell the roses all day. That’s the thought I cling to, that all this awful jumping about you’re doing is merely temporary.”

What would he think about cliffs and rivers?

“Uncle Charlie,” she called out, but of course her voice was swallowed up right away by the breeze.

“Darleen, dear! Darleen!” Uncle Charlie had the megaphone to help his voice be as loud as it could possibly be. “Less chitchat and a little more struggle, please! And a hint of a sawing action from you, Mr. Lukes.”

Darleen made an obedient show of wriggling in her ropes. “But Uncle Charlie, what about my Papa?” she started again.

“Oh, can we just dump her in the river and be done with it?” said the masked villain from above Darleen’s head. That Jasper Lukes! He could be trusted to come up with something awful to say whether or not he was playing the part of a villain. At the moment, Jasper Lukes was peering over the edge of the cliff and waving his dagger about for the camera. “Crying for her Papa! You know, this morning I woke up with a fi ne question in my head. Want to know what it was?”

“No, I do not,” said Darleen, gritting her teeth.

Darleen’s uncles had been looking after Jasper Lukes for years, ever since his no-good parents had tiptoed away. The Lukeses and the Darlings had been theater people together long ago, but then came the catastrophes, one after the other in quick succession, short scenes that belonged in a tragic melodrama with (joked Uncle Charlie — but poor Papa couldn’t even joke about it) a one-word title:


Act One: The curtains catch fi re one night! The Darlings’ theater, the Golden Bird, burns to the ground!

Act Two: But wait! The theater was insured! There is hope! The Golden Bird, phoenix-like, will be rebuilt and rise again!

Act Three: And then one morning, Mr. Lukes (father of Jasper) and the cashbox turn out to be missing. The insurance money — all the hope — as gone as gone!

Epilogue: Oh, there was much weeping and lamenting, especially by the actress who had wandered into town to take on the role of Mrs. Lukes a few years before and who was left behind with a golden-haired baby (Jasper) in her arms. She wept and lamented for a while — at least when she had an audience — and the Darlings tried to console her, and then one day she received a mysterious letter, addressed in handwriting oddly like that of old Lukes, and off she went, leaving young Jasper behind to be raised by the Darlings as best they could.

Perhaps it was understandable that a boy abandoned by two parents in a row might have a chip on his shoulder, but Jasper Lukes seemed to go out of his way to be mean. You wouldn’t think so to look at him: with his golden hair and uniquely pointy little ears, Jasper Lukes, even now at seventeen, was “a faerie prince pulled right from a storybook picture.” That was Aunt Shirley’s opinion but definitely not Darleen’s. Aunt Shirley hadn’t spent her whole childhood being teased, tripped, and tormented. Five years older than Dar, and he had never yet grown out of his basic meanness. Darleen’s secret theory was that Jasper Lukes’s heart must be as small and pointy as his ears.

At some point in childhood, golden-haired Jasper Lukes had scrambled right onto the stage and then, once the age of the moving pictures arrived, into the photoplays. And still it seemed like he never missed a chance to poke a sharp word into Darleen’s side.

“Well, I’ll tell you, then,” said Jasper Lukes now with a sneer. “The question was ‘Why am I still playing second fiddle to this stupid little girl who can’t even act?’ Ooh, and look at this!” he added. “This fake blade has an actual edge on it after all!”

And he began to saw away at the rope for real.

He was trying to scare her now, of course, but all she felt was fury.

“Stop that, you!” she said to him, and her angry hands accidentally started working themselves out of the rope coils.

“LOOKS GOOD THERE, JASPER,” bellowed the oblivious Uncle Charlie through his megaphone. “We’ll add a close-in shot of the knife and rope later. But Darleen, could you give us MORE DRAMA, please? No need to dangle there like a grumpy sugar sack on a rope! Dangle like the Crown Princess Dahlia Louise of St. Benoix. Dangle like a princess posing as Daring Darleen!”

Because that was the story in the motion pictures they were making. A princess in disguise was brought to America by her exiled Royal Father, but trouble followed them — oh, yes, it did! And the poor princess’s tragic circumstances had turned her (by Episode Two or Three) into the bravest of heroines, known across America as Daring Darleen.

That was one thing the real-life Darleen Darling and the fictional Crown Princess Dahlia Louise had in common: they both had to pretend to be Daring Darleen. The princess (being fictional) perhaps had a slightly easier time of it, thought Darleen as she dangled from her rope and listened to the venomous nonsense coming from Jasper Lukes above.

“Saint Benoyks!” Jasper was saying now. Darleen didn’t like it when he made fun of the way Uncle Charlie spoke. Jasper’s mother had had a fancified way of speaking, apparently, and Jasper had spent all these years waiting for his superior parents to come rescue him from the inferior Darlings.

Ben-wa or Ben-oyks — who cared? It wasn’t like the camera could hear what any of them might be saying. But that also meant Jasper Lukes could say whatever nasty things he wanted, because the camera could only see, not hear, and the uncles, who did have ears, were too far away to hear exactly what he was saying.

Uncle Dan cranked steadily, and sixteen times every second a little rectangle of film paused just long enough in front of the lens to have one frame’s worth of reflected

light hit it. It was “the picture leaving its fingerprint,” said Uncle Charlie, who had his poetical side, “leaving its fingerprint, over and over and over again.”

Jasper kept sawing away like the villain he was. “Jasper, you’d better be careful with that knife!” Darleen said.

“Oh, is our Darleen scared?” said Jasper, and he paused from his sawing to give the knife a jaunty twirl. “Well, then, maybe you should thank me, don’t you think? Since maybe this will improve your performance. Your uncle’s right, you know: you’re just a tiresome sack of sugar on a rope, and that’s all you’ve ever been. I’m sure we’ve all had just about enough of Darling Darleen. I know I have.”

“I’m not darling,” said Darleen through her teeth, “not anymore,” but still she flinched a little. Did he think it had been easy, being dumped into a flour barrel at the age of six? Or spreading strawberry jam all over her face? Or tucking four squirmy kittens into a cradle? And having to do all those things under the constant instructions of a director, a cameraman, grown-up actors, and all the rest of an exceedingly theatrical (and bossy) family? But it wasn’t anything to be ashamed of, she knew. Those Darling Darleen pictures had saved the studio. They had! Money came rolling in; the cashbox was happy again. The Matchless studios grew and expanded. That was worth a lot of silliness with strawberry jam.

Anyway, she hadn’t been Darling Darleen for ages now. Expanding the new studio had put them back into debt, and Darleen was too big now to be properly darling. What to do, then, to bring in some money again? Chases, plunges, trains, and villains — that’s what the public wanted these days. The year 1914 would surely go down in history (said all the uncles) as the age of the adventure serial: a new episode every week, and tension galore! So Darleen had lost her l — she’d gone right from Darling to Daring — and everyone at Matchless was hoping that the people who came to watch the photoplays week after week would be happy with the change, even if her Papa was going gray from worry.

“Say whatever you want, Darling Darleen; we all know the truth,” said the unpleasant Jasper Lukes, still working away with his knife. Darleen could see some of the little strands springing up like little stalks of hay where the blade had already sliced them in half. “You’ll never amount to anything, really. You’re not an actress — not really — you’re just pretending to act. And what’s more . . .”

Pretending to act! thought Darleen. What did that even mean? Of course she was pretending to act. Wasn’t that what acting was all about? That was her job!

But meanwhile, Jasper Lukes was actually sawing away at the actual rope.

“Jasper, stop! Uncle Charlie! THE ROPE!” Darleen shouted, wishing she had the megaphone in one of her now-almost-freed-up hands. Uncle Charlie waved encouragingly.

“And what’s more,” said Jasper Lukes again. “What’s more, I tell you, I’m better than all of this. When my parents come back —”

And then they were interrupted by a noise that seemed out of place: the engine of a motorcar that was driving (or so it sounded) almost right up to the edge of the cliff. Darleen’s eyes were naturally fixed on that wounded stretch of rope above her. She had her hands completely loose now, and she began to kick her feet free of the coils.

The door of the motorcar slammed shut. Darleen could hear what sounded like steps — heavy, quick, excited steps — punctuated by shouts. Aunt Shirley, business manager of Matchless studios, was saying something about . . . the newspaper?

“Now, Shirley,” said Uncle Charlie, but the rope had twisted again, so he was out of Darleen’s limited vision. “Can’t you see this is a delicate moment? Keep cranking, Dan!”

Aunt Shirley’s laugh fell on Darleen’s ears like a jagged waterfall, pouring right over the edge of that cliff. Aunt Shirley had never had any respect for delicate moments. She was always exploding onto photoplay sets, bearing news of one kind or another or asking how much that last shipment of film stock had cost.

“It’s lunchtime. Aren’t you people done yet? We’re in the newspaper! Oh, look at you hanging there, Darleen! My goodness, that’s almost too exciting! But is it quite safe, with just that rickety platform underneath you? And, oh, Jasper Lukes, watch what you’re doing with that knife!”

That was when everything happened, more or less all at once.

Jasper Lukes stood up in disgust and said, “You know what? I’ve had enough of you all. I should up and quit! See how you’d like that!” And just to add drama to the point he was making, he tossed his knife (the pretend knife with the very real edge) over the cliff, where it swooshed by Darleen’s almost-frozen nose and banged onto the safety platform below.

Jasper Lukes was always threatening to quit and then breaking things. That was irritating, but usually mendable.

The problem this time was that the entire safety platform, hit by that one little knife flung from not all that far above, shuddered, groaned, and began to sag. Not so much “safe as houses” after all!

Darleen had already kicked her feet free. She was not exactly thinking now. She was swinging herself right up to the cliff and reaching out with her hands and her feet.

There were friendly cracks in the rock, thank goodness. And her arms were strong. She clung to that cliff like a barnacle — a nimble, exultant barnacle!

She felt something tumble down her back now. That was the rope actually breaking and springing away from the cliff. Darleen, exultant barnacle, had no attention to spare for that rope. Let it fall! Far away, the uncles were shouting. Farther away than that, a bird cried out in the wind, and then that very wind came ruffling through Darleen’s hair and awoke something wild in her spirit that she had not known was there. She had found a new crack for the toes of her left foot and a good rock up a bit higher for her right hand, and she did not stop moving even then, because climbing up a cliff with the wind cheering you on and your heart unfurling inside you is something that must be done in a glorious rush, all at once. She was not acting: she just was, and her muscles pulled her up and up again, and the river glittered far below her and her spirit rejoiced, and a moment later she was hauling herself over the top of the cliff, where Aunt Shirley, pale as a sheet, babbled with horror as she hauled her away from the cliff’s edge: “Oh, Darleen, oh, Darleen, what an accident! Goodness! But you’re safe now. Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid.” And meanwhile the uncles were scrambling over from their camera ledge.

And that was when Darleen realized the terrible truth: she had not been afraid. She had been alive. And she was still more or less alive now as she lay panting there on the top of the cliff, though the feeling was already fading. There was a force in her that must have been coiled up very tight, just waiting for a moment like this to spring free and unfold. A terrible, powerful, untamable force that did not want to keep its feet on the ground. What danger could be more dangerous than that?

A force like that might make a person suddenly start clambering up perilous rocks or balancing on tightropes; it might make a person break all the promises she had ever made to the person she loved most: That she would be careful. That she would stay safe.

Oh, Papa! thought Darleen, and terror on his behalf filled her so suddenly that every one of her limbs started shaking.

Cliffs and trains and bridges are dangers that stay politely outside us, after all. But when danger wells up inside, there is no place safe to hide, is there?

And the danger facing Darleen was worse than any broken rope or runaway train. The danger was this: she might be like her Mama after all.


Copyright © 2020 by Anne Nesbet