This review was going to begin like all the best reviews. With a new Jason Reynolds book falling from the sky. “Falling from the sky” is probably a bit hyperbolic, but that’s what it feels like whenever a new Reynolds hits the market. Now due to the focus required of my job, I couldn’t care less when Reynolds has written a new book for teens. As far as I’m concerned, books are best when written for the 0-14 crowd and anything that speaks to readers of more mature years is apocryphal. Untenable. Untouchable. And I think Mr. Reynolds is still seen as primarily a YA author at this point. This, in spite of the fact that he’s written an entire series (beginning with Ghost) for middle grade readers, to say nothing of As Brave As You. So you can keep all that teen stuff. Hand me the Reynolds meant for the smaller fry. Now Look Both Ways isn’t baby fare, by any means. It’s probably accurate to call it straight up middle school/junior high fiction. That sad little neither-here-nor-there age range where you’ve too many hormones to pass as elementary, but not quite enough to slip unnoticed into a high school hallway. Nobody knows quite what to do with middle school books. Do you shelve them in the kid’s section of the library/bookstore or the YA section? Or do you give them their own section entirely? Well, good news. I know exactly what to do with this particular middle school book. You need to weigh it down with awards, so many that it can no longer stand under its own weight and is forced to stagger to the display unit that stands front and center in the library where all the best books go. Then, and only then, will it have found its true home.
One day. Ten stories. When you look at a group of kids tearing out of a school, what do you know about them? What do you assume? These kids all have their own problems, some big and some small. There’s the kid that won’t let go of his blue ball and needs a crazy piggyback ride from a massive friend just to navigate the halls. There’s the girl who’s always writing in her journal, no one ever knowing what it says. The kid terrified of dogs, who’s working out an escape plan in his brain. The pickpockets. The stinky romantics. The beaten and the yuksters and the one that’s clutching a little broom without even remembering it’s there. Ten stories. Not much room to tell what needs to be said, but by the end you’ll realize you wouldn’t have it any other way.
Due to the nature of my chosen profession I read a lot of novels for kids. Let me let you in on a little trade secret: 80% of them? Very samey. I’m reading books that have garnered starred reviews from professional journals left and right, and half the time I’m bored out of my ever loving skull. 2019 has turned out to be a particularly dire year as well. The running gag amongst my librarians is that if the novel you’re reading doesn’t contain some long treatise on loss then check the publication date. You’re probably reading something from 2018. So you want to know the first reason I was looking forward to reading Reynolds’ latest? It wasn’t because it was by him, necessarily. No, it had a lot more to do with the sweet page count (208 and not a paper fiber more) to say nothing of the fact that ten stories equals a significant decrease in the likelihood that these would all be stories about dead parents. I cracked open the book and you know what the first story was about? Boogers! Right there I was officially in love. Then, as I read, I remembered something I’d forgotten. Jason Reynolds? That guy knows how to write. Knows how to go for the emotional jugular. Is aware that even the shortest, silliest story (and, let us be clear, this book begins with boogers and practically ends with a can’s worth of body spray) can work when you catch a reader off-guard with a quick, hard truth. Doggone it. This book is really good.
Let us imagine for a moment that instead of reading this review you are attending a master class on writing, through the framework of Jason Reynolds’ books. I hand you Look Both Ways and ask you to consider some of the ways in which this book is better than better than average. We’ll begin at the beginning. Page two, to be precise. After an opening that, for the record, delivers what may well be the best line about snot in the whole history of children’s literature, we meet our two characters, Jasmine and TJ. Their story is all of fifteen pages long in total. That’s fifteen pages where Reynolds has the chance to flesh out their character traits and to nail down their personalities. Only he doesn’t take fifteen pages to do that. He takes two to three, and he does it by showing how they open their lockers. Here is how TJ opens his: “TJ spun the black lock dial confidently, like he could feel the difference in the grooves and would know when he landed on the right numbers.” Here is how Jasmine opens hers: “… Jasmine, unlike TJ, turned her lock with an intense concentration, glaring at it as if the combination could up and change at any second, or as if her fingers could stop working at any moment.” Consider that. Two sentences and you now know everything you may ever need to know to understand these characters. The beginning of a book is never a mic drop, but that comes close. Real real close.
Ten stories means ten challenges. How do you organize your tales? How much variety can there be between them while still allowing them to feel like they’re part of the same book? They’re all told in the third person, though you do occasionally get a glimpse into a thought process here or there. Some are funny. Some are pretty serious, though none are dire (a trademark of children’s rather than YA literature). Death pops up but doesn’t stick around too long. In a particularly neat twist, because these stories all take place on the same day, characters and incidents that you saw earlier (like when our characters walk by “a cloud of body spray that smelled like cinnamon if cinnamon smelled like garlic”) pop up later, in context. Close readings and rereadings are rewarded amply here. But like any good writer Reynolds had to give this book some kind of overarching theme. Just saying it’s the same kids from the same school at the same time on the same day isn’t enough. So he threw in a reoccurring school bus falling from the sky. It’s subtle, but it works.
When I grow up, I want to be able to write descriptions as well as Mr. Reynolds. I’m already older than he is, so this dream is running into a bit of an early snag. No matter. I will now proceed to write some of my favorite lines of this book, out of context, but you’ll still get a bit of the flavor:
“Jasmine Jordon said this like she said most things – with her whole body. Like the words weren’t just coming out of her mouth but were also rolling down her spine.”
“And Jasmine would laugh because his jokes were always funny even though she knew they were almost never jokes.”
“The way they were – a braid of brilliance and bravado – concerned everyone.”
“He tapped his wrist where there was no watch. Checked it like checking a pulse. A live one, for sure.”
“There’s a feel in the air. A stickiness like walking through an invisible syrup. A thickness to life.”
“Always smelled like incense smoke trying to mask dirty mop water.”
I’m not being fair, taking all these lines out of context. Out of their pages where they glint. You know when you’re reading a book and you run across sentences that stand out, but not in a showy way, from all the others on the page? That little glinting is what these lines display. If you put them all back they’ll still work their magic and, what’s more, they’ll let you get to the best part of any Jason Reynolds story: the payoff at the end. I suspect he’d deny it, but Reynolds has figured out how to get kids to read. On his website, he says that kids who “hate” reading don’t hate books. They just hate reading boring books. Now I’m enough of a child myself to hate boring books too, so the short tales in this book were just my speed. And as I read, I realized that if I made it through a story, I’d get a little kick at the end. Sometimes it’s a kick that makes you want to cry. Other times, laugh. But whatever it does, it makes you feel, so you give in to it and keep reading story after story. For the kick. For the glint. For the feel.
Jason Reynolds won’t do a number of things for the kids that read this book. He won’t give them hardened one-dimensional villains and heroes. He won’t hand them boring overdone tropes that they’ve encountered a hundred times before. He will completely fail to bore them to death. He won’t make them sorry they picked this book up. Heck, he won’t even write a chapter without slipping in some universal truth about humanity. So what will he do? He’ll make your kids want to be better writers. Even if they’ve never written a word in their lives. Especially then. And he’ll make you want to be a better person for those kids. The ones that disappear into the crowds and sometimes don’t even see one another. The ones that only an author can really see. A good one.
A Jason Reynolds.
For ages 10 and up.