Well it's about time! It's been a long long time since I sat down and enjoyed a Newbery winner. About this time last year I was finishing "Kira-Kira" and finding the entire episode pitiful (and, if you read the author's adult novel, just a tad over-familiar). The year before that was a year of a book that was enjoyed by many but didn't bowl me over a tad. Where were the funny Newbery winners? The ones that had the ability to elicit at least a chuckle from a tired old (27) children's librarian? Where were the "Holes" and the "Bud Not Buddy" books of the new millennium? And if they existed, why weren't they getting credited? This year the hype was circling about "Criss Cross" long before its actual win. In a kind of preemptive strike I added it to my to-be-read pile and then waited in anticipation on the morning of the official Newbery announcement. When I heard the winner's name I was not overly surprised but I was curious. "Criss Cross" was upgraded from fifth-book-I-need-to-read to WHY-AM-I-NOT-READING-THIS-RIGHT-NOW!!! I noted the fine combination of text and illustration/photograph/found object. When I read it I laughed. I laughed and I had a hard time not continually shaking my head in a kind of remembrance of my own early adolescent years. Perkins has very carefully crafted a pitch perfect tale of figuring out who you are just as you're exciting adolescence. It sounds unbearably treacly. It is, instead, sublime.
Debbie and Hector are having a time of it. Let's talk about Debbie first, though. She's fourteen and feeling particularly dull and uninteresting. She likes boys (she likes a football player boy for one) but she freezes up when she talks to them. Fortunately she has her old friends, friends since childhood, to help her out of being uncomfortable. She has Mrs. Bruning, the old German lady neighbor, to help out when the woman's arthritis is acting up. And she has Mrs. Bruning's cute grandson to get to know in the midst of what turns out to be a particularly big emergency. Then there's Hector. Hector, in a burst of not wanting to consider himself roly-poly and dull too, is learning the guitar. He likes a girl who is also learning, but at the same time he's resentful of her other admirer. Still, in spite of everything he's seeing the world in different ways and trying to figure out how he fits into it. It makes for a unique little summer.
Now I first came across the works of Ms. Lynne Rae Perkins through her picture books. When "The Broken Cat" came out I was bemused. When "Snow Music" hit the shelves I was in love. Now I've read, "Criss Cross" and I'm enthralled. I am a little sad that the publishers took the first sentence in the book, "She wished something would happen" and plopped it smack dab on the cover. Due to Ms. Perkins' quiet unassuming style, a person that requires all their books to contain gossip, glory, gore (and preferbly a smattering of all three) might be less than taken with the subdued nature of the story. I'll tell you right now that this isn't one of those books where someone overdoses on heroin and someone else gets caught in a bear trap (paging "Kira-Kira"). Now when I review a children's novel for Amazon.com I like to stick little tiny pieces of paper between the pages that I find contain sections I'd prefer to discuss in my review. Sometimes I stick them in because the sections are funny. Sometimes I stick them in because they show where a passage didn't work or the book made some kind of mistake. In this particular case I stuck in (one... two... three) six little slips of paper. Every single one of these is in a section that I thought was especially brilliant. Not a single one constitutes a literary flaw or a difficult-to-understand area. I cannot think of a better physical indication of how much I liked this book.
So let's go through the sections, shall we? First of all, Perkins has a gift of description that instantly recognizable as her own particular style. If you read "Snow Music" and then you read "Criss Cross" you have no doubts left in your furry little brain that the two books were written by the same dame. In this case, I loved the moment when the character of Hector was hoping that perhaps his eyes could move farther apart as he matured, "like a flounder's". I loved how Hector's sister Rowanne is a tentative driver and, "being in a car with her as she felt her way over the winding back roads was like being inside a flashlight held by someone searching for a contact lens". I liked the moment where Debbie speaks to an elderly lady and the books notes that, "She was one of those elderly women whose cleavage starts about two inches below her collarbone and your main response to it is an intellectual curiosity about how that can even physically work". God, I loved that line. Finally (because I can't go transcribing every cute little sentence from this book word for word) I loved this sentence: "So often in real life, one person wants to be understood, but obscures her feelings with completely unrelated words and facial expressions, while the other person is trying to remember whether she did or didn't turn off the burner under the hard-boiled eggs". The book has so much to say about class and change that reading it is akin to watching little fireworks of well-penned sentences burst over and over again.
And then there's the photography, the line drawings, the diagrams, and the eclectic level of art that fills this book to the brim. There's a wonderful, almost Robert Crumb-like illustration of Debbie's very intricate understanding of good bellbottom jeans. When she agrees to a pair of horrible pants and immediately regrets her choice (though they look semi-okay in the store), the books says, "If she could have spent her whole life in the tiny private dressing room, she might have worn those pants a lot". But back to the art. Perkins created all her own art for her picture books, so it should come as little surprise that she does the same thing here. Books for older kids, teens, and adults don't have a lot of pictures in them anymore so the feeling that comes from holding up a copy of this book is to be slightly weirded out. One librarian I showed it to flipped past the bookflap (which is interesting enough) and let out a low "woah" as she scanned the oddities that pop up unexpectedly every once in a while.
If I have any objections to the book at all it is that we have no clear idea when the story takes place (I decided it had to be 1979, but I could be wrong) or where it may be. We know that the town's name is Seldem but we aren't entirely certain what state that might be. Being a Michigan native (much like Perkins herself) I hoped against hope that the story was in that state. Then I read the part that described the mountains and that hope went ah-flyin' out the window. So maybe a little more clarification on the wheres and the whens wouldn't have been out of place. Now technically "Criss Cross" is a sequel to "All Alone In the Universe". I have admittedly not read "All Alone In the Universe". Fortunately, the book does not require a deeper knowledge of the characters than you would already get here.
The book actually kind of reminded me of Margaret Mahy's wonderful and somewhat forgotten, "Catalogue of the Universe". If you're a fan of this novel, definitely check that one out as well. Oh, and just to get you particularly tetchy parents out of the way, there is some swearing and a mention of menstrual cycles in this story. If you don't like it, don't read it. They work beautifully within the story and I wouldn't have them removed for anything in the world. I wouldn't have a word or sentence transplanted for all of Solomon's gold. This is a lovely book and I am FINALLY pleased with a Newbery winner again. And while I don't think it's actually going to be enjoyed by that many children, teens should definitely take to it. Or at least take a look.