I’m probably the laziest person I know when it comes to reviewing books. I’m okay on the reading part, and I’m just ducky at putting a book in my To Be Reviewed Pile. It’s at the point when the book merges with the general pile that I tend to get distracted, though. Books get seriously frighteningly buried. I guess that’s the danger with a vertical rather than a horizontal pile. Then the mediocre books begin to disappear from my mind. I forget their details and their characters. I can’t conjure up a notable scene or moment from them, and then the end of the year rolls around and it’s too late to review them anyway. Once in a great while, however, I’ll bury a book deep down into my pile and it’ll remain in my brain for months on end. Today’s example of this is Sharon G. Flake’s, "The Broken Bike Boy and the Queen of 33rd Street". I read this book so long ago that I’ve no clear-cut memory of the time or season anymore. Yet when I plucked it up just now it was if I’d finished it in its entirety only yesterday. Until this book the only Flake title I’d ever read was the mighty YA, Who Am I Without Him?. "Broken Bike Boy", then, proves that Flake’s talent for switching genres is rivaled only by her strong characterizations.
It’s enough to drive even the most superior member of the royal family bonkers. Queen knows that she’s smart. Her father and her older brothers tell her every single day, and she loves correcting her teacher whenever she has the chance. That the kids in her school don’t immediately recognize her innate superiority would be tolerable if they didn’t all go and actually like nasty old Leroy instead. Leroy stinks and he lies. He says he’s royalty from Africa, and Queen seems to be the only kid in her class that can see through his lies. Yet somehow this nasty boy has managed to charm everybody. Her teacher. Her parents. Her classmates. Everyone! But Queen’s attempts to get at the truth behind Leroy’s past teaches her a thing or two about what it truly means to be royal and, more importantly, a good person in this life.
At first when I was reading this book, I was … well, basically I read this book like a kid would. I really did NOT like silly stuck-up Queen and I was feeling more than a little mad at Ms. Flake for forcing her upon me. I mean, this is a gal doted upon by her father and all her brothers. When one of them sends her a present she recounts how, "Then like always, he told me how much he loved me. Right after that I called my other brothers, to see what they would send me." ARG! Tell me that doesn’t make you feel just a little crazy. Spoiled kids make for frustrating if intense reading. I’m ashamed to say that I was probably halfway through the book before it occurred to me that maybe you weren’t supposed to like Queen. Maybe that was kind of the point. I’ve been so used to reading characters like Ida B from the novel of the same name that I had difficulty recognizing when I was supposed to be annoyed by my protagonist. Kudos to Ms. Flake then. It takes guts to make an unlikable hero. Guts and talent.
Pity about the end, really. Chapter 26 goes way too fast and ends the book with an abruptness that takes your breath away. Spoiler alert for those of you who’d rather not know the end. First of all, the villains are punks with pink hair. It’s so retro it almost works. But then the action sequence starts and the herky-jerky writing throws everything off. For some reason, the style that serves the rest of the book so well goes wayward and odd here. Sentences are short and don’t connect to one another in a pleasing fashion. Then the next thing you know you’re at the end of the book and it’s all happened so quickly that you don’t know if you’re coming or going.
Be all that as it may be, I’m a fan. The book sticks with you. Queen is so infuriating that it’s nothing short of amazing that Flake is capable of making her sympathetic. The feeling of wanting to root for Queen even as you throttle her makes this book a standout in a fairly dull year. Ideal for booktalks, book discussion, and reading aloud in the classroom. Two thumbs up.
Notes On the Cover: I’ve reviewed this book via the Advanced Readers Copy so I’m going by the cover I see online for this title. As far as I can tell, it’s rather pitch-perfect. Photographic book jackets are all the rage, but half the time you’re looking at stock photography of inanimate objects, kids lying on the grass, or decapitated girls (feet are very “in” this year). To see the characters in the book front and center (to say nothing of Queen’s “castle” exactly as I pictured it) is a rare and wonderful thing.