Sunday, June 3, 2018

You Go First by Erin Entrada Kelly

Separated by 1,000 miles, middle schoolers Ben Boxer, 11, living in Louisiana, and Charlotte Lockard, 12, living in Pennsylvania, have been playing online scrabble games with each other since elementary school, though they have never spoken to each other, let alone met. In fact, they only know each other by their online names Lottie Lock and Ben Boot. And both kids are gifted, but lonely outsiders in their respective schools. Yet, over the course of one week, they will help each other when both of their lives suddenly change dramatically at home and in school.

It all begins on a Monday when Charlotte, sitting in life science class, is called out only to be informed that her father has had a heart attack and is in the hospital. Later that day, Ben learns that his parents are getting a divorce and his father will be moving out. Ben retreats to his bedroom and locks his door, while Charlotte, on the other hand, can only stand in the hospital hallway, unable to enter her father's room. That night, they decide to speak to each other for the first, but not the last time (they've always just texted with each other). Interestingly, they connect yet never discuss what is really bothering them.

By Tuesday, Ben, a boy with no friends and a favorite target of school bullies, decides to cope with things by running for Student Council President only to discover that sixth graders can only run for treasurer, and that means his opponent will be a popular girl he once ratted out in elementary school for cheating on a test.

A thousand miles away, Charlotte, who has always coped with her anxieties by withdrawing into what her father calls Rabbit Holes, online research that endlessly leads from one topic to the next, begins to realize that her best friend Bridget has changed and is now more interested in hanging out with other cooler, more popular girls now.

It proves to be a rough week for both Ben and Charlotte, adrift in the particular nightmare that life and middle school can sometimes feel like, but proving to be a much needed lifeline for each other (the cover of You Go First is just such a perfect representation of this) as they try to sort their changing lives out.

It's interesting that while Ben and Charlotte don't really know each other that well in terms of what they think and feel, their friendship is such a symbiotic on - Lottie is the person he would call with big news like winning the lottery, Charlotte knows that she can absolutely be herself with Ben, and that their online scrabble game the one real constant in their lives. And, I think, it is this symbiotic relationship, this one area where both kids are their true selves, that proves to be a testing ground for future friendships.

You Go First unfolds over the course of six days in short alternating chapters. Kelly's writing style is, as always, beautifully lyrical, and once again shows that she just what a master craftswoman she is by going right into the heart of preteen life. Slowly, methodically, subtly, without fanfare or major conflict, Kelly allows her character's stories to unfold and to let us get to know them and become part of their lives, building up our empathy and understanding through their personal crises to a very satisfying conclusion, so that the reader can close the book knowing that they will ultimately be alright.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was purchased for my personal library

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