I have a theory. A theory about why boy v. girl books are so popular with the youngsters. It goes like this: When you’re a kid you find that sometimes the only way to feel real and included in a group is to point out the other kids that (for whatever reason) cannot be included. Now kids cannot help but notice too that human beings are neatly divided into two groups: men and women. By dint of your sex you instantly belong to a group of like-gendered people. And if you band together against the other group then it’s even better because you immediately have easily identifiable “enemies” and “allies”. Phyllis Reynolds Naylor has gotten a lot of leverage out of this idea with her The Boys Start the War/The Girls Get Even titles. Bobby Vs. Girls is of a similar stripe, but takes place a couple years down the road. Right about at that time when you’re on the cusp of puberty and that other gender is about to appear to have a lot to offer . . . but not quite yet. It’s a tricky time and one that Lisa Yee manages to wrestle into some kind of shape. The kids’ll laugh with this one, and some of that may be due to sheer recognition more than anything else.
Bobby and Holly are friends. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but the two take care not to advertise the fact to their OTHER friends. Every day they walk a little ways to school and every day they split up before they arrive so that no one will see them walking together. The trouble between them, however, begins when Holly starts doing all these girly activities, like straightening her hair and doing her nails. Things pretty much go downhill from there. Bobby runs again Holly for student council representative, he gets stuck to a tree, she gets her dress ruined (by him), and egged on by their respective peers the two end up in an all out war. But when push comes to shove it’s hard to truly abandon your real friends. Particularly when they come through for you in the end.
When it comes to her writing there are a couple things Ms. Yee likes. She likes herself a good description, that’s one thing for sure. For example, there is the moment when Bobby finds himself in the presence of his true enemy. “Jillian Zarr towered over Bobby. She was freakishly tall for someone who was nine years old. Even her pigtails looked intimidating.” Another things Ms. Yee likes? Humor. I can’t think of many books where boys get stuck to trees because they’re in particularly huggy moods, so here’s the first. Finally, Ms. Yee enjoys adding elements to her books that you may not have seen before. I mean, stop me if you’ve already read a middle grade novel where the stay-at-home dad is a gigantic ex-football pro who fails utterly at his domestic duties but keeps on trying no matter what. She makes the potentially embarrassing also endearing, and there’s much to be said for that.
When you consider how much material stand-up comedians get from the war between the sexes, I suppose it’s strange that there aren’t even more middle grade novels out there examining boy/girl relationships, particularly those before hormones kick in. As far as I can tell, the average pattern of boy/girl relationships consists of them (1) being friends, (2) splitting far apart once they realize that they’re different, and then (3) coming back together when they hit puberty. This book takes place in that awkward stage near the end of (2) but not so far that it’s really (3). This is a story where the boys are getting one last all-male hurrah out of their systems before puberty hits them over the head and cancels out their anti-girl tendencies.
The notable thing about this book is the fact that the characters are starting fourth grade. That’s not a particularly popular age category for fiction. Fifth or sixth grade and you have crushes. Second or third grade and you have a lot of early chapter book tales. Fourth grade’s right in the middle and it’s rare. Rare but necessary, and I was happy to read something for once that involved a series of misunderstandings without making me cringe all that often.
Another advantage of a fourth grade novel? You get some pictures. Dan Santat has generally relegated himself to full-color lush picture books like Chicken Dance or The Secret Life of Walter Kitty until now. With Bobby Vs. Girls (Accidentally) he has to limit himself to the seventeen or so spot illustrations that crop up throughout the story. Still, Santat has a good feel for the material. I appreciated that in those few scenes where you see the boys and the girls on a level piece of ground, the girls are almost always taller than the guys. Chalk that up to another detail of fourth grade living. Bobby and Holly generally have to look befuddled and angry since that’s the way they act and react in the book, but Santat is careful to include plenty of scenes where they’re friendly, both before an after the hostile incidents, so that you don’t always have to visualize Bobby as a doofus or Holly as a shrew.
There have been a couple 2009 books about kids who hit pre-adolescence or adolescence proper and suddenly find their friendships straining. The Kind of Friends We Used to Be by Frances Roark Dowell looked at girl friendships and how two people deal with growing into different personalities. Bobby Vs. Girls is a little more basic, since it’s taking that old boys vs. girls notion and tying it into how kids grow not just into different types of people, but different genders entirely. What it really reminded me of were the Minn and Jake books by Janet Wong. Same mixed-up feelings. Same misunderstandings. I’d also love to pair this with Jenny Han’s Shug, since that’s a book about a boy/girl friendship from the unrequited girl’s p.o.v. But if you’ve kids looking for a fun book to read just for reading’s sake, Bobby Vs. Girls (Accidentally) has much to offer both genders. And despite their differences, I’m pretty sure both boys and girls will find much to enjoy.
On shelves now.
Copy: Reviewed from ARC from publisher
Notes on the Cover: Before you read anything else, please take a look at this evolution of the book’s cover, which is without a doubt the best of its kind I’ve ever seen. It’s sort of a cool take on the evolution of a title as well. And color me a little sad that the boy and girl symbols disappeared. I’m a little embarrassed that I didn’t notice the prize fighter font and layout of the final cover until I looked at the rejects and saw what Santat was going for.
Other Blog Reviews:
- Lisa Yee interviewed by Tony Abbott for Connecticut News
- Lisa Yee interviewed by Teenreads.com
- Lisa Yee with Publishers Weekly
- Lisa Yee with Into the Wardrobe
- Lisa Yee with Innovative
- Lisa Yee with Mrs. Hill’s Book Blog
- I assume that you already read Lisa Yee’s blog since it is the top of the top. Read her wonderfully enthusiastic post on the debut of the book as well, while you’re at it.
- Here is the official website for the book too.
- You don’t notice it until you see it blown up big, but I like Dan Santat’s This American Life t-shirt, which he is wearing in his profile portrait.
- A little behind-the-scenes info from editor Cheryl Klein.
- We talk about authors and illustrators all the time but we never seem to discuss the taunting. And oh, the taunting that occurs . . .
- And for those of you who, upon finishing this book, believe that goldfish doing tricks is a whole lotta blarney: the evidence.