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Karyn started out the week gushing about what a banner year for fantasy it is. I’m a little closer to Joy’s wavelength because I’ve got some (historical) realistic fiction to cover in this post. Joy also talked about SIGNIFICANCE (well, MESSAGE) in her post. I think that Quintero’s offering, while SIGNIFICANT, elegantly unites a specific setting and time period with a powerful coming of age story. Is that enough of a merit to name it as a contender, though?
Quintero’s new book is actually two intertwined stories; Smiles and Nike have been close friends for a while. By the end of the book, the two boys have grown up and are getting ready to move on to what’s next. The exploration of friendship, of the ways that time and experiences and life can just move us slightly apart from people, is a pretty universal one, and Quintero pairs that with a vividly specific setting and time period (more on that in a second). Nike and Smiles are both working out where they think they belong, how they think they should spend their lifetimes. They’re looking at senior year, they’re starting to understand how the rest of their lives will flow and follow what’s happening now; they may not realize it, but they’re preparing themselves for all the changes that are coming up. The characterization is very strong — Smiles’s thoughtful, discerning watchfulness is a great contrast with Nike’s brash charm.
This is a crowded novel — both Smiles and Nike have complicated histories that we must understand; they also each interact with various characters from the neighborhood — but the story is richer for having both voices in it. Their friendship, their different ways of being, allow for a thoughtful exploration of masculinity — of boy friendships, boy feelings, and how hard it can be, in many ways and for lots of reasons, to grow into a man. I love that this is a buddy novel that isn’t about taking a wacky road trip, or helping your bff get the girl; it’s just a buddy novel about life and how complicated life can be.
The chapters alternate in first person narration — we hear from both Smiles and Nike. Their voices are distinct, and really true to teenage life. Eighties slang and Spanish mix in seamlessly, adding cultural authenticity to the story. The breakdancing scenes are pretty great, too; they show off Nike’s showmanship, and help ground the story in its time frame. Smiles and Nike have rich inner lives, but they have equally lavish outer lives — full of family, friends, enemies, frenemies, acquaintances. I think that’s just part of being set in NYC; it’s an overwhelming city, full of people. The physical crowding — all those major and minor characters — felt, to me, true to life.
What doesn’t work as well here? Well, that true to life crowding adds to the reading experience, but that doesn’t change way the book can feel a little overwhelming. The Sara character, bringing in an international perspective, was rich thematically (and especially powerful in this historical moment) but the late reveal added to the crammed-in feeling. The novel was really intense, but had a (to me) very slow start; I kept waiting for the story to get going. Once it did, it flowed really well.
I’ve got a lot here that I’m really loving. So why am I not quite ready to tag this as a contender? This really is a strong read with a lot for the committee to (potentially) get excited about. Will that be enough to be named in that final five? Narrowing down from the best of the year to the top five is a pretty vicious process, and it’s hard to predict which five will remain in the end. My guess is that this one might not make it in the end…and if I’m right, I’ll be pretty depressed about it. My cold comfort is that, as Karyn as said before (about other boy-centric books even), a strong story that might not make it to the final five is still running with a hell of a pack.
About Sarah Couri
Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.
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