Jason Reynolds has published five books in three years, bursting onto the scene in a big way. It’s no overstatement to say that he may be the most significant new voice to debut during that time span. His first book, WHEN I WAS THE GREATEST, won the CSK John Steptoe Award for New Talent. Both of his books last year were CSK Honor books, THE BOY IN THE BLACK SUIT (which was also shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize–which I had the privilege and honor to help judge) and ALL AMERICAN BOYS, co-written with Brendan Kiely–which also won the Walden Award (ALAN) and Walter Award (WNDB). Those books are all YA.
This year saw the publication of two middle grade novels, AS BRAVE AS YOU, winner of the Kirkus Prize, and GHOST, winner of the Charlotte Huck Award (NCTE) and shortlisted for the National Book Award. Both AS BRAVE AS YOU and GHOST have to be considered strong contenders for the Newbery Medal (and, it goes without saying, the Coretta Scott King Awards) despite the fact that we only included the latter on our Heavy Medal shortlist.
The sentence level writing in AS BRAVE AS YOU seems more distinguished to me, the voice of Genie is so strong, a bit of a pleasant surprise with third person. The characters are also among some of the most rich and complex of the year, and the nuanced dynamics of the intergenerational relationships in this book recall for me the work of Rita Williams-Garcia in her recent award-winning trilogy. The book runs a bit long for my personal tastes, and I’m having a hard time nailing down the book’s themes (not quite sure what to make of the whole dead bird subplot). I’d love to have had the time to do a second read of this book because I think that alone could have dispelled some of my minor reservations, and I could easily be talked out of whatever remains, especially if consensus lies in this direction.
Ironically, GHOST has the economy of plot that AS BRAVE AS YOU lacks, but it also seems much clearer from a thematic standpoint. This book doesn’t seem as accomplished to me as the writing of AS BRAVE AS YOU, but that wonderful mentoring relationship between Ghost and Coach speaks powerfully and beautifully to our ability to lift others up, to help them see their intrinsic worth and realize their vast potential. Normally, I would quote passages from the book to support this–believe me, they are there–but since the book is in my office and I am still on vacation, I’m going to take the unusual step of quoting from a completely unrelated book I just finished reading that is on hand and since it has an apt metaphor . . . THE INEXPLICABLE LOGIC OF MY LIFE by Benjamin Alire Saenz, which is to published in March of this year. (Take note, 2018 Printz committee!)
You know, Fito, some people are born believing that things belong to them. My father used to say, ‘Some people are born on third base, and they go through life thinking they hit a triple.'”
Fito laughed. “I like that.”
My dad nodded. “Yeah. Fito, you’re not one of those people. A guy like you was born in the locker room, no one ever pointed you in the direction of the baseball diamond, and somehow you managed to get yourself into the dugout. And something in you just doesn’t believe he belongs in the game. But you do, you do being in the game. Anyway, that’s what I think. I’m gonna go outside and have a cigarette.”
Some of you have mentioned being underwhelmed with GHOST, and that’s a reaction that I can understand to some degree, but I think those of us who are getting substantially more mileage out of this book are doing so because Ghost is essentially in the same place as Fito, a kid who was born in the locker room, so to speak, and manages to get himself in the dugout, but needs some help to get in the game–and that’s where his track coach comes into the picture. There is something ennobling about this book, something that celebrates and affirms the worth and dignity of the human spirit. Something that potentially distinguishes this book as greatest contribution to American literature for children this past year.