The dismissal bell rings at Latimer Middle School and sixth graders spring from their classrooms. We can all imagine the scene: crowded corridors, lockers flung open and shut, a skateboarder weaving past, kids gathering on benches outside, school buses lined up and a teacher at the door to “tell everyone what not to do.” At the corner a crossing guard waits in the same place every day. But in the very first lines of LOOK BOTH WAYS: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks (Simon & Schuster, 188 pp., $17.99; ages 10 to 14), Jason Reynolds’s inspired new novel for middle-grade readers — a National Book Award finalist — we’re reminded to take a closer look. “This story was going to begin … With a school bus falling from the sky. But no one saw it happen. No one heard anything.”
That hint of magical realism is one of many ways Reynolds, whose previous books include award winners such as “Long Way Down” and “As Brave As You,” honors the in-between quality of any sixth grader’s life. Lines between independence and need, right and wrong, perception and reality, and childhood and adulthood all seem to blur while kids navigate the middle ground between school and home.
Fans of Reynolds’s best-selling Track series will already know the dexterity with which he writes from different perspectives, and those shifts are especially effective in this book of interconnected stories, each corresponding to a different block where the characters go on their after-school adventures. The solitary boy we first encounter in a glancing sentence “holding a broken skateboard across his lap … stroking it like a hurt dog” eventually becomes the center of his own story, in which he is both bully and victim. A skateboarder too fierce to stop in the corridors is glimpsed later in a moment of haunting stillness, recognizable to the reader but not quite seen by her classmate who “didn’t want to stare because it would’ve been weird.” A boy with “a knife in his voice” also turns out to be “a son who was scared. A son who loved his mom.”
For young readers, the structure of this “tale told in 10 blocks” is bound to be deeply satisfying, a way to zoom in on the everyday mysteries of this neighborhood. “Everyone wanted to know what secret things Fatima Moss was always writing,” notes Canton, the son of the crossing guard, without any idea that he figures among them: No. 18 on Fatima’s list, holding a broom with no broomstick for reasons she does not question. And Ms. CeeCee, the candy lady, knows better than to ask what the foursome of kids with short-cropped hair — The Low Cuts — are up to when they haggle over 90 cents’ worth of Mary Janes and Life Savers, “individually wrapped.”
But we learn secrets the characters neither ask nor tell: the reason Cynthia writes jokes for her daily playground comedy show; the reason Simeon carries Kenzi on his back at dismissal; the reason Bryson didn’t turn up at school at all. What emerges most powerfully is that the kids do have reasons. For young readers, these revelations invite empathy, understanding and tolerance. The novel offers much to older readers as well, a reminder that more is happening in the hearts and thoughts of our children than most kids reveal or than some of us remember.
“Why are all the books we have to read about death?” a clearheaded kid in my daughter’s English class asked recently. Just at the stage when we hope children will keep reading, their book lists begin to resemble a compendium of life lessons — as though reading must be grave or ponderous to be meaningful.
Death is not the only hardship, as Reynolds knows. And this novel does not shy away from the fears its characters face, from barking dogs and pretty girls to dementia, sickle cell anemia, homophobia and jail. Grief does appear, in an especially delicate telling. But gladness abounds in this neighborhood. Friends are generous; adults loving (if slightly clueless); and the narrative is propelled less by dramatic losses than by acts of courage, loyalty, devotion and hope. Best of all, the children are not powerless. They make their mark through hustles, jokes, video games, board tricks, secret messages, shared bonds and private dreams. When a quiet girl is asked, “How you gon’ change the world?,” the question resonates because it expresses a crucial truth: She will.
Reynolds’s crackling, witty prose is a joy to read. The tales come in a sprightly variety of modes, from a handwritten list to a meditation on school buses that brushes up against poetry. I was too squeamish to fully enjoy the opening discourse on boogers, but somewhere, a 10-year-old is about to start grinning.
Here, I might tell the boy in my daughter’s class, is a book about life, a book to encourage us not just to look both ways but to look down at the sidewalk and up at the sky, to look in every direction we can. Because we don’t want to miss a single page.
Nalini Jones is the author of the story collection “What You Call Winter.”
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