I mentioned in a post a few months ago that I was eagerly awaiting Nic Stone’s new book, her first foray into middle grade fiction. The truth, however, was slightly more complicated. I’ve loved all of Stone’s previous novels but working with a new age group is sometimes a precarious journey for writers. Several authors whose work I’ve loved have tried and, in my eye, failed to find a believable voice when making such a switch. I am pleased that, as is often the case, my apprehension was unfounded and unnecessary! Clean Getaway is a sharply written pleasure to read and I have been delighted to put it in the hands of young readers.
When his grandmother swings by and asks eleven-year-old William “Scoob” Lamar if he’d like to join her for a little adventure, he doesn’t think twice. Scoob is desperate to escape his father’s disappointment after a string of poor choices and misunderstandings lead to serious trouble at school. Scoob has always been close to his grandmother, who is often his main refuge from his disciplinarian father, so a trip with her seems like a great distraction from the looming troubles in his life. Things start out pretty well. G’ma won’t tell Scoob where they are headed and he is surprised when he learns that she sold her house to buy an RV, but the open road feels like freedom.
Over time G’ma reveals that their path, which takes them from Atlanta into Alabama and across the deep south, is also a journey into her own past. This is the same route that she took with her husband, Scoob’s grandfather, shortly before he was arrested and sent to the prison where he would eventually pass away. As they delve deeper into G’ma’s memories, Scoob also becomes alarmed by G’ma’s behavior. She seems both forgetful and suspect – sometimes calling Scoob by the wrong name or forgetting to pay for meals, other times doing things like furtively switching the license plate on her RV. While Scoob’s unease continues to rise, G’ma also seems to be dodging calls from his father, leading Scoob to wonder what is really happening, what G’ma might be hiding, and how this suddenly dramatic road trip might end.
Stone manages to build the tension over the course of Clean Getaway while also cleverly deepening the mystery of G’ma’s behavior and her past. This book is also incredibly emotionally resonant. Scoob has a loving and warm relationship with his grandmother, but things with his father are far more complicated and I appreciate the care that goes into exploring the nuance of this relationship. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the incredible illustrations that are sprinkled throughout this book, helping bring Scoob and G’ma’s journey to life.
I also value the way Stone weaves the legacy of racism in America through this story. Scoob’s grandfather was black and his grandmother is white and as he travels with G’ma, Scoob learns how difficult this made their relationship. He also learns about Victor Green’s Green Book, the guide used by many black motorists to safely navigate a hostile country, and observes both the ways that society has changed over time and the unfortunate and toxic ways that it has not. It is no surprise that a writer of Stone’s caliber is able to present these difficult ideas to a young audience in a way that is easy to understand but does not blunt the truth. But what really stood out to me is how deftly Stone connects the past to today. It is striking how close this history is – that a young person like Scoob is only two generations removed from the era of segregation, and that its legacy still manages to persist and cause harm when left unconfronted.
Scoob, G’ma and their ill-fated journey stayed with me long after I finished this book. As is often the case, this book for young readers is crafted with the empathy, intrigue, and rich character development to make it a moving and instructive read for audiences of all ages.