Clean Getaway

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. 

813MVz8pIzLWhen 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. 

Real Friends

Some things in life come easy to me. I’m excellent at pattern recognition, reading way past my bedtime, functioning on very little sleep (could these two things be related?) falling up the stairs instead of down (always fall up), and having reflexes that work way faster than my brain. I didn’t have to work too hard at honing these skills and I’ve probably always taken it for granted that I don’t have to think about the process when I’m using them. There’s no concentration involved and things just seem to magically fall into place.

That’s never been the case with making friends. That’s always been something I’ve struggled with. If you met me today you probably wouldn’t guess that I was an extremely shy child. I didn’t approach strangers, would sometimes not even approach extended family members, and preferred to hide in my older brother’s shadow while he made things happen for me. However, he was never able to make friends for me; that was definitely a solo-Carol job, so when I did stumble into a friendship I held fast even if, in hindsight, it was unhealthy.

Reading Real Friends by Shannon Hale slammed me right back to that playground where I made my first friend who also later turned out to be the most unhealthy thing for me.

Real Friends is the story of a young Shannon, who recounts the series of friendships she had growing up and the impacts each made on her life. I was surprised to open the book and discover it’s not a graphic novel but actually a graphic memoir. As Shannon recounts her early school years through a series of friends she had, I was thrown back in time to the mid-late 80s when I was going through the same things Shannon did in the late 70s/early 80s. Some things are just universal. While this book is aimed at middle-grade readers I think anyone can find relatable moments.

I found myself in different friend roles growing up. Sometimes I was an Adrienne. My family would move or I would change schools and I would lose touch with my friends and have to start over again. Sometimes I was a Jen, although I never made people line up and be ranked in the order of who I liked the best (what a cruel thing to do!). Once or twice I’m sure I was a Wendy. I was the only girl in my family and sometimes I just couldn’t take the nonsense and would totally snap and lash out at my brothers. Then there was exactly one time I was a Jenny. To this day I regret acting the way I did, but nothing can change what’s in the past. We can only move forward and learn to choose kind.

But for the majority of my childhood I was a Shannon: shy, quiet, not sure how to make friends but knowing that I really, truly wanted someone to talk to and experience life with. I also made up games and was sometimes bossy or just oblivious when others were bored or left out completely when I became self-absorbed in the creative process.

I realize the name-dropping I’m doing here isn’t very helpful if you haven’t yet read the book, but it does illustrate the vastly different characters, aka real friends from Shannon’s past, that leap off the pages of this book. It’s amazing to me that within just a few panels the reader can get a deep sense of what kind of friend each girl was and the reader has a chance to see a bit of herself (or not) in each, too.

You’re gonna get the feels and if you’re lucky enough to still have a bestie from childhood you’re gonna want to call them as soon as you’ve finished reading.