Losers Bracket by Chris Crutcher
Greenwillow, April 2018.
High school senior Annie Boots knows that her biological family is not good for her and that she should follow her long-term foster father’s instructions to stay away from them. But the heart wants what the heart wants, so Annie comes up with elaborate ruses to enable her to meet up with her mother, Nancy, and her half-sister, Sheila, both of whom have substance abuse problems.
But then Sheila’s son Frankie, a somewhat disturbed 5 year-old boy, goes missing and the remainder of the book deals with the fallout from that. It’s here that the tone of the book goes awry for me. Initially we seem to be in a farce with the broader than life Boots’ family caterwauling and cursing at each other (though that sits a little oddly with their drug and alcohol issues), but with the disappearance of the child, there is an abrupt shift into something much more serious and the two tones don’t gel together well.
Annie, a poster child for nurture over nature, is surrounded by a terrific support system: her foster mother and brother are caring and engaged, her good friend Leah, the only significant black character in the book, is endlessly patient with her and her former social worker, something of a cliche as the overworked caring person in a broken-down system, comes through for her (rather unethically) when it counts.
Too much happens rather too swiftly in this short novel, and there is a little too much reliance on familiar tropes (the Boots family feels like every dysfunctional family you’ve ever seen in a reality TV show). Nonetheless, the author, with his background in therapy presents a messily realistic portrayal of how social services and the legal system fail children in need of intervention and he creates a persuasive argument for the power of family, however imperfect.
Three years ago, middle schooler Castle ‘Ghost’ Crenshaw found out he could run fast, when he and his mother were escaping from his father firing a gun at them. Now he’s been invited to be a sprinter for an elite track team, but he feels he can’t compete while he has to wear his raggedy high-tops. As Ghost realizes he can’t run away from his past, readers will be rooting for him as he gets ready to run towards a better future.
Ghost narrates this compelling first book in a middle grade series, in which all the characters are black unless otherwise mentioned. He has had a challenging life, and is frequently in trouble for getting into “altercations” at school, but under the guidance of Coach Brody, who looks like “a turtle with a chipped tooth,” Ghost is able to quieten the “scream inside” as he trains with the team.
Ghost is a typical Reynolds’ (When I Was the Greatest, 2014) protagonist: robustly authentic, smart, intrinsically decent, and quirky, with his love of sunflower seeds and world records. His mother, studying for her nursing exams while working full time and bringing up Ghost on her own, is a strong role model for him too, and is humanized by her love of soppy romantic movies.
Future books will center on the other “newbies” in the team: Lu, Patina, and Sunny. They are initially rather flat characters given traits to make them memorable: Lu is albino, Patty has been adopted by a white family, and Sunny lives in a wealthy neighborhood. But they blossom in their sharing of secrets over a Chinese dinner, which is a Coach tradition for new members of the team.
This is a short, fast-paced (ha!) book that will appeal to readers of Kwame Alexander’s books.
Conviction by Kelly Loy Gilbert
Disney Hyperion, 2015.
This rich and complex YA story of faith and fathers is set in a conservative white Christian community in California’s Central Valley. 16 year-old Braden Raynor is a witness when his father kills a Hispanic police officer – but is it deliberate or an accident? Long submerged family memories bubble up when his estranged half brother, Trey, moves back from New York to be his guardian while their father awaits trial.
Braden is a high level baseball pitcher, and his relationship with his coach-father is somewhat akin to his relationship with God: He worships both of them, and believes these absent fathers expect complete loyalty. Twisted into this, is his certainty that playing baseball can bring salvation for him with both. His father believes in “stern discipline” and has already driven Trey away; Braden will do anything to meet his father’s (Father’s) expectations and remain the ‘good son’.
When he was a baby, Braden’s mother abandoned him to become a dancer; and when he begins a relationship with an adopted Chinese girl, his feelings of being discarded are reflected in her uncertainty about her birth parents.
The portrait of the Church community is even-handed and not disrespectful, but doesn’t offer excuses. The pastor has spoken out about homosexuality and there is more than a whiff of racism in the attitudes towards the immigrant population of the next town.
I thought the pace was measured, but some may find it slow, as the narrative moves inexorably towards the trial, while flashing back through the past. It is clear that Braden is holding information back from both the police and the reader, and the gradual reveal of the truth brings depth and resolution to the characters and the novel.