In recent years, Jason Reynolds has established himself as a master of his craft, publishing award-winning YA and middle grade books. (I’ve previously written about Reynolds’s YA title The Boy in the Black Suit.)
As Brave as You, one of Reynolds’s middle grade novels, won many 2016 accolades, including the Schneider Family Book Award and the Coretta Scott King honor. Today, I’ve been thinking a lot about middle grade, checking out Newbery predictions and seeing which titles have been getting the most buzz as I plan my end-of-the-year reading and gear up for 2017 awards.
It seems like a great time to revisit a beloved book from last year. Today, I reflect on what kidlit writers can learn from this sweet, almost meditative middle grade title by a writer at the top of his game.
Use the tropes––and then subvert them.
As Brave as You covers some well-trod ground in kidlit. City boys visit the country. A summer away at the house of quirky, intimidating relatives. Anxiety about fighting parents. Uncertainty at what the future might hold.
Despite this, As Brave as You feels different. Reynolds takes these tropes and makes them wholly new. Genie and his older brother Ernie are two boys from Brooklyn, spending several weeks with their grandparents while their parents work out some marital issues.
And though there are elements of the typical city-boys-meet-country culture clash, Reynolds adds enough nuance to ensure things are not quite as simple as readers might expect. When a neighbor girl claims to never have heard of Brooklyn, the boys quickly find out she’s fibbing. And though country life does include some things Genie and Ernie might have expected––hard work picking peas, and intense poop-scooping in their grandparents’ yard––it also includes a man who sells teeth at the local market, a hypochondriac mother, and a secret room in the house that neither of them could have imagined.
Genie and Ernie grow and change during their weeks in this foreign, familiar world. By taking a tried-and-true middle grade plot and complicating it, Reynolds tells a story that feels both classic and fresh.
Remember the large and small problems that make up your protagonist’s world.
I’m going to get to this bit of advice, I promise. Just––give me a second to wind my way there. 🙂
As Brave as You has an almost episodic feel. Rather than following a traditional plot arc, it meanders (and I use that verb in the best way possible) through the various struggles Ernie faces during the weeks at his grandparents’ house. This includes breaking a treasured model truck that belonged to his late uncle; trying to find wi-fi connection so he can google all the new questions filling notebook; helping his grandfather face a longtime fear; and dealing with the fallout from an accident on his brother’s birthday.
At times, it does seem like the first half of the book––where the problems are smaller, though Genie’s reactions to them are outsized and urgent––is moving a little slowly. Things begin to pick up when Grandpop decides to teach Ernie how to shoot a gun. Since fourteen-year-old Emmett Till’s lynching in 1955, Grandpop has insisted every boy in the family learn to shoot on his fourteenth birthday. It’s both a family tradition and a means of protection.
Forget family tradition, though. Genie is mostly focused on the awesomeness of his older brother learning to shoot a gun. Ernie, on the other hand, is scared, though he tries to put on a brave face for the others. Reynolds never fully explains why Ernie is so scared, and it’s not clear whether Ernie even really knows himself. But Reynolds does give us some clues. Despite Ernie’s cool demeanor and his penchant for sunglasses, he’s a gentle guy. Ernie plays with the chained-up dog in the yard, he’s attentive to his grandmother, and he’s very sensitive to what others think of him. So it’s easy to imagine that a manhood that involves knowing how to shoot a firearm, or ever needing to, is not what Ernie dreams of when he imagines growing up.
And this is really the core of As Brave as You. What does it mean for Genie and Ernie to be growing into manhood? Genie’s constantly writing down questions in his notebook and researching them later. He’s looking for easy answers to things that make him worry and wonder. Partway through the book, however, Genie starts to realize that there are no succinct, google-able answers to questions like why his dad won’t speak to his grandpop.
Or what it means to be brave.
Or why forgiveness is so difficult and so powerful, all at once.
Which brings me back to the somewhat-slow-moving first half of this book, and why it works.
In taking time to let Genie cope with––and really, freak out about––the small problems in his life, Reynolds stays true to his eleven-year-old protagonist’s perspective. Genie really does feel like something in him is broken when he breaks that model truck. And when he worries he might be responsible for the death of a bird, Genie’s really worrying that the bird’s death defines him in a way he doesn’t want to be defined. It’s a precursor to the more dramatic scene later, where Ernie acts on his complicated feelings about what it might mean that he has to learn to shoot a gun.
In weaving a tapestry of problems both big and little, worries both complex and small, Reynolds creates a nuanced and moving portrayal of one summer in Genie’s life. Here is Genie, beginning to understand what it means to be a man. Here is Genie, learning he just might be a lot braver than he thinks.
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