Only two stars. None taken.
The category of Funny-Middle-School-First-Romance is always well represented on library shelves, but when it comes to Newbery recognition…well, ”none taken,” as Gracie from Well, That Was Awkward would say. It’s her response when someone has insulted her, but hasn’t said “no offense” (p. 7, 134-5, 250). Published reviews of Rachel Vail’s book are strongly positive, but it has just two stars [Oct 14 udpate: It actually has three stars now (HB, VOYA, BCCB), which is not bad at all…but I’ll keep the title because I think it was just two when this posted]. Adults I’ve talked to who have read this book have liked it, but not loved it. When I browsed through GoodReads reviews I noticed the word “cute” pops up a lot. I double-checked, and no, “cuteness” is not one of the literary qualities delineated in the Newbery Terms and Criteria. But on the other hand, for a book in this genre, a high level of cuteness is not a bad thing, and maybe even a key element in “quality presentation for children.”
Along with Short by Holly Goldberg Sloan, Well, That Was Awkward strikes me as a thoroughly excellent book in an under-awarded genre. It’s #3 on my list of funniest books of the year (#1: Dog Man Unleashed; #2: Dog Man: A Tale of Two Kitties.) The humor comes through in the rapid-fire wit of Gracie and her friends, especially Emmett. Their back and forth conversations, both in person and through texts, remind me of an old movie like His Girl Friday, where you can just barely process the last witticism, and then there’s another on the way. Gracie’s way of talking about herself is also funny, and endearingly self-deprecating: “I love tortoises. Whoa, calm down, me.” (p. 25)
There’s a lot more going on than the humor, though. Gracie’s struggles to make sense of the complexities of middle school social dynamics are handled with poignancy and insight. She’s smart enough to recognize the arbitrariness and unfairness of it all, but she’s immersed in it herself and not able to fully stand outside. She’s also trying to come to terms with the death of her sister, which happened before she was born, but still casts a shadow over Gracie and her family.
Language, delivered through Gracie’s first-person narration, helps to carry the story and its themes. The words that Emmett and Gracie share are the spark of their relationship. They have a verbal connection that sparkles in their conversations, with pet words and phrases that they reuse with each other, like “whelmed” (p.194-5, 313). These are amusing, but also work as recurring indicators of how right they are for each other. And when they do similar clever language things while texting as someone else, like the routines on “favorite type of lake” (p. 171: “great, cornf, and Frostedf”….funny, right?) and “favorite type of used” (p. 225), it’s a hint (which they miss, but most readers won’t) that it’s really the two word people, Gracie and Emmett, who are doing the texting.
Gracie’s creative words are used for humor, but also for the more serious moments. For example, after a rift with her friends and a hard conversation with her dad about her deceased sister, she ends the chapter with “my phone still as cold and as quiet as a detached planet…” (p. 239) That’s just such a Gracie way to express that feeling. And also cleverly refers back to a phrase her father had just used.
The story echoes Cyrano de Bergerac, but is not at all dependent upon it. The key plot element in which Gracie and Emmett each pose as a friend while texting to facilitate the friends’ romance, is (as in Cyrano), just believable enough. The scene where Gracie insults herself to mock her antagonist Riley (p. 67) plays on a similar moment from Cyrano that most readers of this book won’t get at all, but it stands on its own just fine; it’s funny and demonstrates Gracie’s ability and courage to stand up for herself in creative ways.
With the texting mix-up, most readers will catch on quickly that it’s Emmett texting back and Vail trusts us to get that. Gracie gets it too at some level, and only refers to it obliquely at the end: “was it always…I mean, were you the one…” (p. 312) I do feel Gracie would likely have caught on earlier and mentioned it, or at least speculated about it, but I think this way works too.
The ending is just right for a light romance like this, as Gracie articulates what readers have known for a while about who she should be with: “Emmett. No way. But at the same time: Of course. Of course” (p. 314).
I found Gracie to be one of the more memorable characters of any book this year, and Vail’s use of first person narration and dialogue to establish characters and develop themes to be at a distinguished level. But maybe I’m the only one….? If so, is it just that this isn’t the book, or is it that this type of book just isn’t Medal-worthy?
Filed under: Book Discussion
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired after 35 years as a full-time librarian. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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