2021 Newbery Roundup #1: Rick, Clean Getaway, A Game of Fox and Squirrels

We’re keeping an eye on children’s books that have been talked up as possible contenders for the 2021 ALA Youth Media Awards (to be announced on January 25). It’s impossible to forecast what will tickle the fancy of this year’s Newbery committee, but here are three titles that keep showing up on “Best Of” lists and mock Newbery ballots.

Rick by Alex Gino. Scholastic, 2020, 240 pages.

Rick is just starting middle school with his longterm best bud, Jeff. They’re starting to drift apart, but Rick doesn’t know why until the Rainbow Spectrum Club opens, with meetings on Tuesdays, everyone welcome. Rick furtively attends the first meeting out of curiosity, where he meets kids from almost the whole LGBTQAAQ (etc.) range. Have we left out anyone? The club discusses who might have been left out, why the term QUILTBAG is somewhat accurate but derogatory, and who might or might not be rightly considered an “ally.” Rick also makes friends with Melissa, who used to be George (protagonist of Gino’s first novel). Surrounded by the whole middle-grade sexual/gender spectrum, Rick begins to wonder if he’s asexual or “aromantic.” (Fifty years ago we called that a normal 12-year-old boy.) Meanwhile he’s bonding with his grandfather over their shared love for an old sci-fi series. Grandpa Ray is all guy, but he used to cross dress at fan conventions. So let’s put on a talent show at school and dress up like female sci-fi characters for the next convention.

Pro: The characters are likeable and the author does a surprisingly good job reading the audio version.Con: Pedestrian and didactic. All the rainbow kids are happy, friendly, and well-adjusted, while Jeff is a conventional jerk and bully. I don’t think it’s an actual Newbery contender, but it’s the kind of book librarians have to promote if they’re on the LGBTQ etc. etc. bandwagon.Overall rating: 2.5 (out of 5)

QUILTBAG is an actual thing: see our review of No Good Deed to find out what it means.Clean Getaway by Nic Stone. Crown, 2020, 223 pages.

It’s not the first time William “Scoob” Lamar has been in trouble at school, but it’s the worst penalty he’s ever suffered. Instead of spring break at St. Simons Island with his dad, Scoob is sentenced (by Dad) to a week at home without phone or friends. Until his Grandma (G’ma) turns up with a brand new RV—her sweet ride—and invites him aboard. Who could say no? He even brings his suitcase, packed for the canceled trip, though as far as he knows they’re just going out for ice cream. But G’ma seems to think they have a long way to go and by the time they reach Alabama, Scoob is wondering just how long. He wonders a lot of other things too: why his feisty little grandmother sold her house, why she’s bringing up his late grandfather continually, why she keeps switching license plates (stolen plates??) on the RV, why she’s not answering his dad’s calls, and just when do they get where they’re going?

It’s a sentimental journey for the old lady, who was unconventional enough to marry a black man in the sixties, and is no more conventional now. The trip she took with her late husband fifty years earlier was cut short—mistakes were made, laws were broken, wrongs were done, and G’ma intends to make it right. But can she?

Pro: Scoob’s relationship with his grandmother—a complicated, yet stronger-then-death bond—is the heartbeat of the story, and very well done.Con: The serious purpose under the surface wackiness is often touching, but sometimes jarring. Though there’s some resolution in relationships, other wrongs are not made right, leaving a sense of incompleteness when the last page turns.Overall rating: 3.75

Road-trip stories have great dramatic and humorous potential: see our reviews of The Middle of Somewhere, Thou Shalt Not Road Trip, You Don’t Know Me, and Rules of the Road. A Game of Fox and Squirrels by Jenn Reese. Henry Holt, 215 pages.

Samantha (Sam) and Cait have just arrived at their Aunt Vicky’s house in Oregon. It’s a huge shift from their home in Los Angeles, in more ways than one. They’ve been removed from their parents’ house, and though it’s not explained why at first, the assumption is abuse. Cait is compliant and eager to make a new home. Sam is not. Temporary is her watchword: she intends to get back to L.A., her friends, and her parents ASAP. And soon she has a means of doing so. Hoping to help her feel more at home, Vicky presents her with an roll-play card game called Fox and Squirrels. The object of the game is to avoid agitating the fox, by pleasing him, avoiding him, and conforming to him. Whatever it takes. The reward is a Golden Acorn, which will grant the winner anything she wants—for Sam, her golden ticket back home.

As she explores the game, the squirrels show up and explain the rules. Then the fox appears. He’s at first charming and interesting, but the more Sam tries to comply with his demands, the more the rules change. And if the game becomes dangerous, Sam may not realize it until it’s too late.

Pro: The story is well-written with realistic characters and psychological depth. Fantasy makes an effective vehicle for discovery, as it becomes obvious that Ashander the fox is a stand-in for Dad, who alternately charms, demands, and withholds. Vicky, Dad’s sister, experienced his manipulations while they were growing up and now feels guilty because she cut off communications and was not available for the girls. As in Fighting Words, the protagonist’s sister takes the brunt of abuse to protect the younger, a sacrifice which the younger doesn’t at first appreciate.Con: Perhaps as a result of her brother’s abuse (which is never explicit), Vicky has sought love and affirmation with a “wife,” Hannah. All the remedies are self-determined and fulfillment is found outside of God’s law.Overall rating: 3.75

Child abuse is a theme in several Newbery buzz books this year: see our discussions about Fighting Words and Chirp. We are participants in the Amazon LLC affiliate program; purchases you make through affiliate links like the one below may earn us a commission. Read more here.

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