Smackdown Books 2018

Wolf Hollow
Salt to the Sea
The Serpent King
Optimists Die First
The Hate U Give
Orphan Island
Dan vs. Nature
The Female of the Species
Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere
Paper Girls, Vol. 1
The Passion of Dolssa
The Distance Between Us
When We Collided
Louis parmi les spectres
Girl in the Blue Coat
Defy the Stars

Thursday, February 18, 2016

You Go Gabi, but You Ain't Crossing Over

So, I spent the bulk of my last post whining about the plague of verse novels and YA novelists that can’t say “enough” as they pile on the problems plaguing their protagonists. Naturally, these next two novels, The Crossover and Gabi: A Girl in Pieces, represent each of these pet peeves, respectively, but somehow I emerged without finding myself too irritated. I liked them both, and I’ve actually really been struggling with which one to put forward (Spoiler Alert: It doesn’t really matter as my group has already kicked Gabi to the curb and went with The Crossover.) as I could see myself recommending each very strongly to very different kids.

I found the The Crossover a little underwhelming at first and that was possibly due to my antipathy for the novel in verse form, which I find very limiting unless in the hands of a really exceptional poet. What the form does offer, in this case, is an opportunity for Alexander to establish some character touchstones and really ground the culture of the book fairly quickly, and I think for some kids that will create some early reading momentum. I don’t think Alexander is a great poet and I’m still not convinced that the ultimate ends of the novel couldn’t have been rendered more effectively and, even more poetically, through prose, but the guy does get basketball and there is a cadence to the novel that does remind one of a basketball game. The story comes at you in quick bursts, often with unique turns of phrase and a pop-culture sensitivity that is going to really resonate with some readers. I don’t think you need to be a guy, or a basketball fan, to appreciate the novel, but there is certainly something to be said for a novel that you may be able to put into the hands of a reluctant and, perhaps, athletic young reader. I think the novel falls down a bit in regard to character development. We’re left to infer a lot about the characters and that is alternately exciting and frustrating. For me, the frustrating part was that we have a writer who is really asking us to peer inside some complex - and all too common -emotions that young people, and perhaps particularly young men, have difficulty dealing with, but I feel like we had the chance to watch those emotions play out, without really exploring them in any depth and nuance. This is where the form he’s chosen really lets Alexander down as those quick explosions of dialogue and fleeting images do not always create a truly coherent narrative. It’s a good book and I think some kids would really like it, but I think it had the potential to be something really special and you can feel it kind of slipping away in the final quarter of the novel.

I was prepared to find Gabi: A Girl in Pieces a little bit much right from my first glance at the cover and while it does all get laid on a little thick sometimes, particularly with the meth-head dad scenes, I was frankly charmed by Gabi herself. She was unflinchingly honest and principled and funny and smart and  . . . well you kind of get the picture. Despite her frequent protestations to the contrary, she is really someone who is comfortable in her own skin and, of course, it warms my little English teacher soul to see the role that language and literature plays in making her who she is. The novel veers a little close to being a two note after-school special (Don’t be homophobic! No means no!) at times, but again, Gabi saves it. If there is a message in this book, it isn’t about any particular idea or theme, so much as it is about recognizing the complexities in other human beings. Maybe even more important, it’s about voice. Gabi’s is unique and spirited, but I think what you see throughout the book, are characters, particularly Gabi, that realize that they have a right to a voice, even if there are very strong social influences trying to tell you what you are allowed to say (and when, and how). There is certainly some mature content in the book, but I think there is real power in a book that shows characters struggling with some of the big issues that all teens face in honest and often eloquent ways. My daughter is only nine right now, but a few years down the road I’d feel confident giving her this book not because it provides any kind of roadmap about how to navigate those tough teen years, but because it conveys that your “you” doesn’t have to fit with some preconceived norm. I think any young reader could read this book and use Gabi’s voice to find a window into their own. That’s pretty powerful stuff and it’s also a moving and often, very funny read. I think both books are worthy contenders at this late stage of The Smackdown, but if I had to choose one, I’d go with Gabi: A Girl in Pieces.

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