Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Goodbye Stranger

I have been told that girls are easy to raise while they are young. Being the father of two little girls, that is comforting to hear. I have also heard that while girls are easy to raise in their elementary years, they are nothing but headaches in their junior high and high school years. A fellow, more experienced father once told me that as his daughter grew older, he found himself worrying about her safety and well being far more than he worried about his son's. That makes me feel stressed and anxious, and let's just say up front, that reading Rebecca Stead's GOODBYE STRANGER did nothing to quell my fears!

Bridge, Tab, and Em have been best friends for a long time, and they don't fight with each other, by rule. Bridge survived a horrific accident when she was eight years old and often questions why she was left on this world. Tab is stubborn and opinionated and is beginning to see through the stereotypes present in society and the mean games kids play with each other. Em is growing into her teenage frame rather nicely and is even beginning to receive attention for it, from boys and girls. And she kind of likes the attention! As their interests and situations change, these three girls struggle to maintain their friendship.

One of the biggest strengths of GOODBYE STRANGER is its supporting cast of characters. Characters that seem to be secondary at first, begin to play larger roles as the story progresses. No one is exactly who they seem to be either. Sherm is a boy that befriends Bridge. Their friendship and chemistry is strong but neither can tell if they want to be more than friends. Patrick is an older boy who begins flirting with Em through texts. One of his requests causes things to spiral out of control for everyone about halfway through the book. Jamie, Bridge's older brother, competes tirelessly with his frenemy Alex at ridiculous bets. Adrienne is the new barista at Bridge and Jamie's father's coffee shop. She takes an interest in Bridge. Celeste is Tab's older, wiser sister, who imparts wisdom on the girls. All of these characters play integral roles in the girls' developing and changing friendship.

And then there's the Valentine's Day girl... an unnamed character narrating chapters in the near future in second person ("You wake up. You head down the stairs. You put your headphones on.") From the moment this unnamed character is introduced, we are drawn in, wondering who this person is and how they are connected to the story. This character is skipping school in the near future because something bad has happened. As the novel steamrolls toward it's closing, bits and pieces of details are referenced in these chapters that have been mentioned in the novel elsewhere. How do they fit? How did things come to this? How do we know this person?

If GOODBYE STRANGER seems like a lot to keep track of, it is. Because it is Stead though, it is worth it! It can be a confusing read. The three main girls are different, yet so similar that it was hard to tell them apart in the early pages. There are so many other characters in the story and it can be difficult at times to remember what was said by which character, because they all do so much talking! Dialogue is another one of Stead's strengths though, and she understands kids.

GOODBYE STRANGER is a book that needs to be read by teenagers. There is a scene early in the novel where the students gather in a gymnasium and sign up for a theme club. The existential crossroads these students are at in their lives parallels this scene nicely. It is the primary theme of this novel. Friendships change. People change. We change. How do we navigate it all? How do we not lose sight of ourselves while everyone and everything around us is changing? Stead is one of the best working today and her style and approach to these themes should prove to be poignant with young readers.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Graphic Novels: Sunny Side Up and Roller Girl

Some year soon, a graphic novel is going to win the Newbery Medal. The day is coming. A graphic novel has received an Honor in each of the last two years (EL DEAFO and ROLLER GIRL) and this year a picture book took home the Medal (LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET). As children readers change and interests widen, and as more authors begin exploring this medium, I envision the quality of stories being told to only get better and better.

Two popular graphic novels from 2015 were SUNNY SIDE UP and ROLLER GIRL. Both are designed in bright, friendly packages and both include a selling quote from Raina Telgemeier. Despite these physical similarities the stories inside these covers are very different from each other.

SUNNY SIDE UP was written by Jennifer Holm who is no stranger to the graphic novel format (BABYMOUSE series) or the Newbery Medal (she has Honored three times with OUR ONLY MAY AMELIA, PENNY FROM HEAVEN, and TURTLE IN PARADISE). SUNNY SIDE UP is her first graphic novel that is not a part of her BABYMOUSE series.

In SUNNY SIDE UP, Sunshine Lewin heads to Florida for the summer to stay with her single grandfather in his over-55 retirement community. She has dreams of Disney World and playing in the pool but instead, gets trips to the grocery store and early-bird buffet dinners at Morrison's Cafeteria. She meets a boy named Buzz who introduces her to comic books and his company begins to help her take her mind off of the real reason she is in Florida with her grandfather.

SUNNY SIDE UP is a quiet story. It has the feel of an Alexander Payne film. It is a quick read. I read the entire graphic novel in about an hour. Not a lot happens and Sunshine doesn't say much, but often times her expressions do the talking, as do the flashbacks to time spent with her troubled older brother Dale. There is humor in the book, in a fish-out-of-water kind of way, but most of this humor resides in the shadow of the much heavier plotline of Sunshine's older brother's issues. Sunshine loves him but feels partly responsible for what is currently happening to him (which is a mystery to readers at first, but unfolds through the flashbacks). Kudos to Holm for addressing this subject matter and not watering it down. This will probably find a niche among younger sibling readers.

ROLLER GIRL by first time author and former roller girl Victoria Jamieson, is an entirely different story. It's similarly serious but a much bigger story. In ROLLER GIRL, Astrid and Nicole have been best friends forever but during the summer before middle school, their interests change. Astrid impulsively attends a roller derby camp and falls in love with the sport while Nicole heads to dance camp. Astrid struggles with losing Nicole as a friend, making new friends, and riding out the (literal) ups and downs of learning the sport of roller derby.

ROLLER GIRL is as much about friendship and growing up as it is about the sport of roller derby itself. Jamieson does an awesome job of using the book to introduce the sport to readers without devoting pages and pages to rules and terminology. We learn the ropes as Astrid learns the ropes. Her struggle with the sport is a great parallel to her struggle with losing Nicole and making a new friend. Astrid is an imperfect, yet endearing character and you can't help but root for her as she discovers herself. ROLLER GIRL is the type of book that could be loved by grade 5-8 girls for a very long time.

While I would never want to separate the text from the illustrations, hypothetically ROLLER GIRL is the type of story that could survive and be just as endearing without the graphic novel format. I'm not sure the same can be said for SUNNY SIDE UP. Holm doesn't provide us with an inner monologue the way Jamieson does with Astrid. SUNNY SIDE UP is told primarily through parse character dialogue and pictures. This isn't a bad thing at all, just a different thing. Astrid's thinking is present on every page of ROLLER GIRL which gives the text an extra depth. While the illustrations are great, they just add to an already distinguished coming-of-age story. I enjoyed SUNNY SIDE UP thoroughly because I enjoy everything Holm does! ROLLER GIRL however, caught me by surprise and completely lived up to its Newbery Honor hype.