Criss Cross

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NEWBERY MEDAL WINNER – 2006

Criss Cross

written and illustrated by Lynne Rae Perkins

Age: 12+

Interests: coming of age, friendship, romance, small town life

Also by this author: All Alone in the Universe (about the Criss Cross character Debbie), As Easy As Falling Off the Face of the Earth

This is the story of a group of 14-year-old friends in a small town – two girls and three boys who’ve known each other forever and enjoy hanging out together. This summer, however, their relationships are shifting in subtle ways. There are tiny inklings of romantic interest, not always followed up on. Their paths and activities cross each other time and again, in a random fashion, and as they loiter their way through long summer days, it’s not certain who will end up “with” whom.

Perkins has a fantastic grip on what kids are thinking, and how tangential and funny their conversations can be. This book is a gentle, tone perfect vision of lazy afternoons and the wandering, wondering minds of young teenagers. They are noticing the opposite sex, and taking small steps toward each other, but true connection is too often thwarted by misfortune, misunderstandings, or bad timing.

This story takes place in the 1970s, and I have to admit that a large part of my fondness for this book is due to nostalgia. The kids sitting in Lenny’s dad’s truck in the driveway so they can listen to their favourite radio show may seem a little strange to kids today, but boy that scene took me back!

It will certainly seem to be a book about nothing to some, but I found the languid pace and lack of ‘X-treme drama’ really enjoyable. If you read a lot of YA fiction, as I do, it can be a relief whenever substance abuse, toxic families,  and vicious bullying don’t show up in a book! There aren’t even any sharp-tongued siblings. The main big sister of the story – Rowanne – is a paragon of understanding and support to her awkward little brother. A secondary character, the cocky, mean-spirited Dan, is the closest we come to a bully, though he is too lazy to be really effective. He intends to tease Debbie with the found necklace, but loses it before he gets the chance, then just shrugs and forgets about the whole thing. I think the half-hearted, noncommittal way that these teens approach everything is what makes this novel seem so true to life.

Another thing I appreciated was the story’s relentless randomness. Life is not neatly plotted, and events unfold without an overall plan, in a jumble of tangents, dead ends, and endless, pointless detail. Amazing coincidences are rare, though an awful lot of YA novels seem to have plots entirely dependent on them. I can appreciate the skill of authors who concoct intricate rubik’s cube storylines, but they often feel disappointingly convenient. Young readers need to know that life is not tidy. When you wish for a boyfriend on a lucky necklace, one will not pop out of the woodwork on cue, no matter how entertaining that would be.

It’s also helpful for young people to know that there is no one, single chance at falling in love. At the end of the book two very sympathetic characters simply don’t make eye contact at a critical moment, and romance fails to spark, but the reader is left to feel that it could still happen in the future. Or not. And either way it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

It’s also nice that the kids in this story are so resolutely and uniquely individual. Hector has a sudden desire to play the guitar, and not just because it will impress girls. He persists through a series of awkward, church basement lessons, and at the end decides to play his original songs for a block party. Sensing a kind of half-hearted Hawaiian theme to the event (solely because they’re roasting a pig), Hector gets it in his head to actually wear a sarong. A move that, in the 1970s of my memory, would probably have been a humiliating social disaster, though in this book there seems to be no fallout from his fashion-forward move. I like that these characters have at least an element of not-caring-what-others-think, as well as the confidence and freedom to pursue what interests them, no matter what it is.

The reading age for this book is key to its enjoyment. Even though the reading level is fairly easy, and there is little to no ‘edgy’ stuff in it, it’s such an underplayed plot, and so thoughtful and meandering, that those who don’t really ‘connect’ with it may become bored. Once kids start thinking about love and careers and where they are going in the world, then these characters will start to resonate and they will enjoy this book. For that reason I’m taking a guess at 12 as a good age to read this. (And I would highly recommend it to any adult reader with even a vague recollection of the 1970s!)

 

 

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.