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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

You Go First

yougofirstMaybe you’ve heard of Erin Entrada Kelly?  She won a little award called The Newbery last year.  And although the winner of last year’s Newbery doesn’t factor at all into this year’s decision, of course it means people are going to pay attention to her newest novel.  We, here at Heavy Medal, included.

Ultimately YOU GO FIRST is about two young people, middle schoolers, helping each other to find their voices.  They are both afraid and a bit ashamed of their lives.  They are both lonely.  And although they’ve never met in person, they are able to help each other feel a bit more self-assured and a bit more free.

There is no doubt that Erin Entrada Kelly is a masterful writer, able to weave together stories and make connections between characters.  And these two characters are relatable and the reader is really rooting for them.  The alternating point of view is effective, and each protagonist feels very real.  The pacing is slow, the story gentle, and the character growth realistic.

Somehow, though, I’m still not sure I’d put this at the top of my list.  Something about the relationship between our two main characters felt a bit forced.  I never believed in their friendship the way I wanted to.  Maybe I wasn’t supposed to?  Maybe their friendship was always meant to be one of convenience – just a glitch on the path to real life friends?  But that feels like a diservice to both of these characters who are so strong and compelling.

I also found the anti-bullying message a little heavy at times.

What do you think?

In either case, the pain of middle school is ever-present in this novel, bringing me back to what is a tumultuous time in most young people’s lives, where friendships are complicated, and self is being defined.  It is certainly a wonderful novel that young people will love.  Might it be the most distinguished?

Sharon McKellar About Sharon McKellar

Sharon McKellar is the Supervising Librarian for Teen Services at the Oakland Public Library in California. She has served on the Rainbow List Committee, the Notable Children’s Recordings Committee, The Arbuthnot Honor Lecture Committee, and the 2015 Caldecott Committee. You can reach her at


  1. I actually think I enjoyed this one more than Hello Universe but I found it hard to connect to the characters, and I thought the scene with the mother at the end was a little bit of a cliche.

    This is extremely minor but I didn’t actually mention it last year – one of the things that bugged me about Hello Universe was that the text messages were formatted incorrectly (the person who was sending it was often on the left of the screen when they should be on the right) and that also happened in the copy of You Go First that I read! What a funny thing to misformat! However, there were fewer messages so it was less of a problem. 🙂

    I think this is a strong book but the end was certainly less strong to me than the rest of the book. For that reason I wouldn’t consider it one of my top picks at this point.

  2. I enjoyed reading this one while I was reading it, but the more I think about it, the more questions I have. The relationship between Ben and Lottie was very weird to me, because it was false on so many levels. Maybe a subtle theme was that sometimes we don’t have to truly understand someone to connect with them and that doesn’t make it less meaningful? Because they lie to each other for most of the book. I’m not sure, having finished the book awhile ago, but I’m pretty sure that Charlotte is unaware of Ben’s parents divorce, and it’s only at the very end that he learns about her father (if he even does…he picks up the phone because “it’s an emergency” but we don’t hear what they talk about.) In most stories we see people becoming friends because they are able to share their true selves with the other person, but here we have people becoming friends precisely because they’re easily able to lie and evade.

    Also, the ending bit where Ben peed his pants was over the top to me. I didn’t like that it wasn’t clear whether it was obvious to the other kids that he’d peed his pants. Because that’s something that’s not just a minor upset, that’s ego-destroying humiliation, something that will haunt his social life forever and it gets introduced in the last couple of pages of the book as something minor to just “get over”. It’s actually possible to wet your pants a little and not have it be noticed, depending on what sort of pants you’re wearing, etc. There’s a big difference between you knowing it happened (embarrassing and upsetting, but yeah, you can get over it) and everyone in the school knowing it happened (humiliation beyond words). It was very distressing to me that it wasn’t clear which it was.

    • Hannah Mermelstein says:

      I was also bothered by the lying aspect. In general I get stressed out when characters aren’t honest with each other in books, but I realize it’s a device that’s sometimes used in books. What bothered me was the ending, that it never came together and told us what the two talked about, as you said. I suppose you could make an argument that the ambiguity is the messiness of life, but I found it wholly unsatisfying.

  3. I’m not sure whether I just missed it or that the Scrabble game play was not as cleverly integrated into the narrative as I had imagined (from the cover, and also from the title, and also from the fact that they play the game with each other.)

  4. Leonard Kim says:

    I feel like academically-strong, socially-challenged characters are everywhere, and I am not sure the characters in YOU GO FIRST stand out from the mass. In her comment, Kari mentions she found part of the plot cliched, and I think there is cliche in the characterizations too. Like Kari, I found it hard to connect with the characters, maybe because they felt a bit underdeveloped. For example, many such characters are interested in “facts.” If one compares Charlotte to Figgrotten in THE HEART AND MIND OF FRANCES PAULEY, I felt the latter more successfully let us into the head of a fact-obsessed character. Charlotte’s “rabbit holes” form a sort of running commentary throughout YOU GO FIRST, but the “rabbit hole” process itself, getting “swept up researching useless information online” (4), never felt motivated in the familiar way, for example, that Figgrotten falls into her Margaret Mead rabbit hole, “The thing that had drawn Figgrotten to her to begin with was a photograph she’d found. . . . She looked a bit strident, wore a cape and a hat, and carried a walking stick. At first Figgrotten even thought her face looked kind of manly. She stared at the picture for quite a while. Then she started reading about Margaret Mead’s life and found it super interesting” (6). Another character of this basic type that I found more successful than Ben or Charlotte was Annie in SNOW LANE. Annie is more of a numbers girl (and FWIW more successful I thought than Lucy in MISCALCULATIONS OF LIGHTNING GIRL), and her relationship to numbers, how she processes them, is presented in a forthright, personal way that felt authentic to me: “I’m good at it. Being good at it makes me feel calm. It’s like I don’t even need to think because I am thinking so hard. . . . I’ll do three sets of three strands of hair and I’ll only use two rubber bands to tie it off. Shazam. I’ve got my two. . . . Honestly, I don’t know why my sisters think my counting is so weird. Our mom has about a half-dozen rosary beads hanging from the rearview mirror, and when she’s stuck in traffic, she takes one down and starts counting prayers on it. . . . Why is me whispering license plate numbers that much different?” (28)

  5. Sharon McKellar Sharon McKellar says:

    Well, it seems that my feelings are matched by many others about this title. Not likely to rise to the top this year. I love reading all your insights and reasons. Thank you!

  6. I had a hard time getting into it because I got bogged down in all of the science at the beginning and it was just slow to get going. But I liked it a lot more as it went. I think its biggest strength is it did a good job showing how terrible junior high is. Which is also one of the reasons I didn’t enjoy reading it as much, because that’s not really a headspace I enjoy hanging out in.

    I thought they were going to only be able to be honest with each other, but I thought going the opposite way was interesting. I could see how being able to be who they wanted to be or pretend to be the person they were having a problem with and get the other person’s reaction helped them cope with what was going on in their lives. I did expect there to be some sort of reveal at the end where they found out the truth. I actually kept thinking they went to the same school and were going to find that out, a la The Shop Around the Corner. Somehow I kept forgetting they lived in different states!

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