Random House Books for Young Readers
Release Date: September 28, 2010
Realistic boy fiction
Recommended for grades 3 to 5
When we first meet ten-year-old Jake he’s grocery shopping with his mom. Okay, so that may sound like a pretty lame beginning for a book you would ideally hand to the ultra-fickle, often reluctant demographic of boys around 8 to 10ish. Luckily for Jake, and for the reader, Couloumbis’ clean style and knack for expertly capturing her protagonists’ voice transforms everyday activities into moments that reveal character and deftly advance the story.
A few days before Christmas Jake’s mom slips on the ice in the supermarket parking lot and breaks her leg. At the hospital, a pushy administrator with a terrifyingly cheerful smile questions Jake about his family and wants to know which relative she can call to take him home. That’s a bit of a problem. For most of his life, it’s just been Jake and his mom. Jake’s dad died when he was a baby and ever since then, his family has pretty much been a team of two. Of course, there is his Aunt Ginny, but she’s away with a group of women on a wilderness retreat. Then there’s his Aunt Susie, but she is currently on a Greenpeace boat somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The only other blood-relative is his grandfather, a man Jake barely knows and only speaks with once a year on the phone.
Grandad shows up the next day. He’s a gruff, military man whose “words sound like they are being yanked all the way from his toes.” To make matters worse, Grandad has brought along his “nightmare dog,” a hairy, snapping little terror on four legs. Needless to say, Jake is less than thrilled at being thrust together with this veritable stranger. It’s awkward for both of them. Couloumbis crafts sparse dialogue and Jake’s one-line asides to reveal how these two characters take great pains not to embarrass themselves, or each other.
What I loved about Jake was its fresh portrayal of male bonding. Male relationships, male vulnerability, and the building of father-son (or grandfather-grandson) relationships is a topic that I’ve not encountered in great numbers in children’s literature. Guy stories are often about young boys growing into men, confronting their fears, and experiencing the world on their own. They usually bring to mind the survivalist genre- great “boy on his own” stories like Hatchet. When the father-son dynamic is a strong focus, it’s often about the breaking free from parental authority or the struggle to define oneself in opposition to the Father.
Jake, unlike the boys in those stories, is a character searching for connection. Rather than discovering himself outside of the known world, Jake rejoices in his identity as a member of a family. It’s a family that is atypical and one that springs up around him unexpectedly, composed of friends, neighbors, and eventually, a grandfather.
I was also struck by Couloumbis’ ability to envelop the reader in the sensory experiences of Jake’s world in a mere 159 pages. From the descriptions of frosty windows and winds so bitter they make his mom’s fillings hurt, I found myself almost shivering despite reading most of this book on the New York City subway in June. Lines like “The ice falls away in dinner plate-sized sheets that make a sound like crickle-crackle” are evocative all on their own, but Couloumbis expands a simple simile into a clever motif a few pages later with “Miss Sahara’s smile didn’t keep her from sounding like that thin ice that Mom and I scraped off the windshield. Crickle-crackle.” Her writing is economical and smart.
Jake is a funny, thoughtful kid who wants his grandfather to like him. And he wants to like his grandfather. At times, he tries to figure out what his Grandad wants to hear, resulting in some hilariously clumsy conversations. During one scene, Jake blurts out that he is a Republican, having remembered his mom once mentioning that fact about his Grandad. Grandad dryly responds later on during a lull in the conversation, “So, how long you been voting Republican?”
The very ending (really, the last line) was a just a tad saccarine for me, but overall, Jake’s voice is authentic and grounded in the reality of a boy who recently turned ten. Other than the initial drama of his mother’s injury, there are not a lot of exciting plot points. That might be a challenged for readers used to plot-heavy series fiction. It is, however, a wonderful transitional book that exists somewhere after Ready, Freddy but before Schooled. I’d predict it’s the kind of book that will work well in book groups and in the classroom setting, but you may have to handsell it in your library to that “just right” kid.