Now let us discuss the middle school book. It is, arguably, the most forgotten book of its kind on a library and/or bookstore shelf. The book written for your average everyday denizen of junior high has no place in this world. It is too old for the children’s section, seething as it is with budding romance and a general distrust of authority of every stripe. It is also, by the same token, too young for the teen section, feeling far too young for a place where you can encounter sex, drugs, and in general very splattery violence. Yes, the middle school book is an unloved object, doomed to drift between two very different worlds, acting as a bridge with no home. And yet, one has to understand that the middle school book is a necessary creation. It is in middle school that we lose whole swaths of readers. Where the children that are more than happy to plunk down with a book at the end of the day find themselves in the throes of a hormonal change without a literature to serve them in their hour of need. So it is with mixed feelings that I approach A Song for Bijou by Josh Farrar. At once familiar and unexpected, Farrar’s pseudo-Romeo and Juliet styled romance set in contemporary Flatbush and Ditmas Park may have some difficulty locating its audience at first, but those that go in for the ride will find themselves rewarded a hundred times over. What a great little book.
Cue the soundtrack, the stars, the explosions, and the confetti. When Alex Shrader lays eyes on Bijou Doucet, it couldn’t be called anything but love at first sight. A kid who normally just bumbles his way through his day, Alex is suddenly thrilled with the prospect of finding out more about his sudden crush, and with a bit of research he has some answers. Bijou Doucet: Relatively new transfer from Haiti to St. Cat’s (the sister school to his own St. Chris) and mystery woman. Alex doesn’t know anything about her family (or her culture for that matter) but he is determined to learn more. Bijou, meanwhile, at first wants nothing to do with the strange but sweet boy that looks at her like she’s the sun, the moon, and the stars. In her family boys and girls don’t date or even hang out, but there’s something about this guy’s dogged persistence she begins to take to. Told in alternating points of view, Farrar dives into first crush situation where success seems utterly impossible, but maybe worth fighting for just the same.
I’ve been sitting here, writing this review, wracking my brain to come up with other examples of middle school literature where a boy dedicates himself to a crush as thoroughly as Alex does in this particular book. I know that they’re out there. I accept that they exist. Yet more often than not, a book containing a storyline where a boy crushes on a girl usually makes that fact secondary to the overall plot. It’s not usually in the forefront of the action itself. Alex, however, is the kind of guy you believe in. In fact, Farrar has his character down cold. It takes a little more effort on his part to render Bijou as warmly, particularly since the beginning of the book is marked pointedly with her indifference. Fortunately you come around to her, just as you come around to their core group of friends.
Now there’s a lot of talk these days about the Common Core standards by which our kids will soon be taught. As a result, I’m always on a lookout for books that not only work in details from a variety of different cultures, but have the depth and research to pull it all off. In this particular novel, Farrar sets much of his action in Flatbush, a diverse area of Brooklyn where a large and thriving Haitian community exists. It’s not a part of the world where we see many books for kids set. In his Author’s Note, Farrar explains that after watching the 2007 documentary The Other Side of the Water: The Journey of a Haitian Rara Band in Brooklyn, he was inspired years later (and after the Haitian earthquake) to take a devastating event far away and ground it in a place already near and dear to his heart. A white author, Farrar says that while writing Alex’s part came relatively easily, to ground Bijou’s story in something better than mere guesswork he spoke at length with Haitian and Haitian American women, attended second language classes for Haitian students, and learned some hand-drumming techniques with musicians in Prospect Park. Every book written for children by authors about kids from another culture is subjected to a certain level of scrutiny on the part of reviewers like myself. Name whatever standards you like, though, and you’ll find that Mr. Farrar’s book passes the litmus test for great writing with flying colors.
I was also pleased that the book gave a certain level of depth and weight to the decisions and personality of Bijou’s Tonton Pierre. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to render Bijou’s hard-nosed rule-obsessed and ultimately (perhaps secretly) frightened uncle a parody of himself. However, he wears his heart on his sleeve, and while most child readers won’t spend more than a second of thought on him beyond the page, Bijou’s brother Jou Jou may allow a couple of them the chance to appreciate that this guy has a heart somewhere. It just happens to be buried in the thick of his misplaced intentions. Tonton Pierre is a real guy to the reader. That’s more than can necessarily be said for the bullies in Alex’s school. They occasionally show hints of interesting meanness, but generally speaking they’re just your standard brainless baddies. Foils for the action, if you will. And after Tonton Pierre you expect more.
The fact of the matter, and this is not giving anything away, is that there are no easy answers to Alex’s predicament. I say “Alex” specifically because I get the sense in this book that while Bijou is vaguely interested in this sweet gawky guy, his particular feelings are the crux of the novel itself. As such, I was mighty relieved that while his solution at the end of this story may bring him (and perhaps even Bijou) a certain level of inner peace, it’s not really going to change much of anything. It makes for a great capper on the story, but since we’re dealing with middle schoolers here, neither kid is going to suddenly go crazy and break the rules of family and society.
I call this book “middle school” but aside from the first crush storyline and the oblique reference to “getting some” (its innocent speaker is referring to kissing alone, so that’s pretty indicative right there) there’s nothing here that couldn’t be found in any middle grade novel. Ultimately I decided the children’s section was the best place to put A Song for Bijou, a decision I’ve not regretted one iota. Presenting a story that’s been told in different versions before, but never with this particular setting, Farrar ends up making something ultimately pretty original in spite of its traditional background. A fine, fair little novel that will hopefully find its audience someday.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Notes on the Cover: A pickle. Truth be told I rather like it. The fact that the publisher opted to hire an artist to draw them a jacket rather than telling the art director to simply cobble one together from various Getty Images indicates that they were okay with skewing the readership younger. That said, I’ve been told by some folks that the cover looks too young for its intended readership. Still when you compare it with the loads of other first love titles out there, A Song for Bijou is refreshing in its straightforward attitude. What you see is what you get. There’s a certain level of relief in that, don’t you think?
By the way, for a behind-the-scenes look at what went into the cover’s creation (including a rejected initial sketch) check out Cover Stories: A Song for Bijou. I love that Moonrise Kingdom was an influence.
Like This? Then Try:
- Behind the Mountains by Edwidge Danticat – If you like stories of Haitian kids finding a home in New York City.
- Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanen – If you like straight up middle school romances.
- Drita, My Homegirl by Jenny Lombard – If you like kids from wholly different cultures becoming good friends.
Other Blog Reviews:
- Finding Wonderland
- Welcome to My Tweendom
- Secrets & Sharing Soda
- Random Musings of a Bibliophile
- Librarian of Snark
- Ms. Yingling Reads
- Corrective Lenses (which wins the Best Interview Title Award for its “Zou Bisou Bisou, Bijou”)
- Melissa Walker
- Have a book club? Would you like to Skype with the author? Then maybe now’s the chance to check out the Bijou Book Club link.
Watch as author Josh Farrar reads from his book at Book Court in Brooklyn: