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A 40-ish publisher (editor, project manager, etc.), husband, and father of an even number of offspring, I grew up, or failed to, reading fantasy and sci-fi. I still enjoy reading, and now am trying to write. My favorite books include YA fantasy, manga, biography, and advice to authors. I'm also a former history major/grad student/high school teacher and assessment writer. Now I work for a school supplement publisher, specializing in high-low chapter books. I spend a lot of my time controlling reading levels. At night, I cut loose and use long words. W00t!

Sunday, February 5, 2012


Nothing says I have to be fair, however, or that either author would benefit. 

** Note: some spoilers below

Pictures of Hollis Woods is a literary novel for tweens. I’m not sure I’ve encountered anything like it till now. Sure, we’ve all read and/or avoided the sorry-for-the-poor-kid books that read like Saturday afternoon tv specials from the 19

70s. They give me a headache, probably caused by trying to digest the frosting cliché on the middling cake of a story.

And Hollis Woods, the protagonist, is the kid from those stories. She’s an orphan, difficult, twelve, vulnerable and hard at the same time, and oh, so deserving of a better life. However, that’s not how the story reads. Here’s why I think Giff’s book is a literary novel: structure.

The title means something (there’s a concept) – in this case, it’s a device for flashbacks, delicately revealing how Hollis’s past becomes her present, and Hollis’s own contribution to her story, the scenes of her life she draws to remember, someday perhaps to understand, as well as a way she can be herself while drawing, something she yearns to do, and does with remarkable skill and vision.

The current chapters all have the same title, indicating the present day, and the flashback chapters all are about the subject of a drawing, narrating the time leading into, and after, the events Hollis depicts. Giff executes this subtly and cleverly, rendering the flashback narratives in italics, and revealing just enough to keep the story flowing toward its goal.

The end isn’t a huge surprise. It’s not supposed to be. Of course Hollis finds a family. Of course it’s the Regans. Of course Josie is part of her life. None of this is in question after page 40 or so. It’s not a mystery, but a narrative of strands weaving together just as people’s lives intertwine.

This is a delicate slip of a novel, under 170 wide-lined pages, and all fitting together neatly. The characters all matter, are all recognizeable, all memorable. It’s about the easiest thing in the world to read, vocabulary aside (and that’s not too hard). If I taught sixth grade, I might assign it to the class.

So, what’s so bad about Tim Green’s Rivals? It can’t be “unfair” to compare it to a Newberry Honor Book like Pictures of Hollis Woods without being unfair to Rivals, can it?
Why, yes, it can.

Green’s a master of a different type of storytelling. There are few flashbacks. There’s no fancy structure. It’s great for baseball-crazy boys, and perhaps a few girls who don’t mind that baseball stories always focus on the boys. (There’s a strong girl character in here – hoo, boy, just wait.)

And Rivals is all about twelve-year-olds, too. These kids are doing pretty well for themselves. Josh LeBlanc is a baseball prodigy, six feet tall a bit early, and a skilled batter and infielder. He makes all the plays you want to see (if you like baseball, which I don’t , but which I started to, a little, on reading this). Josh is also gifted with insight, a great coach who is also a great father, and two awesome friends – Benji, whose over-the-top self-glorifying banter is never meant nor ever received as pridefulness, and Jaden, whose feelings for Josh lurk dangerously close to the surface of their friendship, without her or Josh ever really figuring it out.

Here’s the thing: Green’s characters all matter, are all recognizeable, all memorable. Green drives the plot relentlessly forward, which takes less concentration on the part of the reader, but with twice the pagecount, there’s a lot more story. It’s rollicking good fun, with danger, adolescent angst, athletic challenges, and clever dialog. It crackles with the intensity any successful novel for tweens has to have. But reading it is not like solving a puzzle. It’s like riding a roller-coaster.

So, what’s fair or not? In truth, I’m glad I read both books. If I liked only boyish books like Rivals, would I be open to reading Pictures of Hollis Woods? And if I favored the contemplative, sparse narratives of Patricia Reilly Giff, would I be open to enjoying the driving linear narrative of Tim Green? I hope so. The unfairness comes in part from the channeling we experience, our tribalism infecting (or shaping? I guess it matters which word I choose, and I’m not sure about my choice) everything we do or think. Even with all the clever ways these authors break boundaries, by including characters, meaningfull ones, of various tribes, in their narratives, we still read the book in a genre or demographic category.

My older son is in sixth grade. I imagine a classroom like his somewhere, where a boy reads Rivals next to a girl reading Pictures of Hollis Woods. I hope they talk with each other when they’re done.

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