Newbery Project #8: 2006’s Criss Cross

I think the project is starting to cloud my judgement. When you read almost nothing but Newbery winners, it makes it hard to keep things in perspective. Things that are great in the grand scheme of things are problem-ridden when you are reading them only from the viewpoint of “here are a bunch of things that won awards! Look how good they are!”

So, with that skewed perspective in mind, I am sort of ready to discuss Lynn Rae Perkins’s Criss Cross. A book that doesn’t even have an actual description on Goodreads except for the first few lines of the novel. That is how little a plot there is to this book. And when you’ve read a string of character-driven, light-on-plot children’s books, you start to wish for something to happen. Ironically, the first line of an early chapter in the book is “She wished something would happen.” And I am sure I am not the first person who make this exact comment about this book: “DON’T WE ALL, DEBBIE! DON’T WE ALL!!!!”

The book follows several different characters. Confusingly, the very first character we meet is not really the one that stands out as the main character. Debbie feels like the main character in that she has the most chapters from her perspective and the closest thing to a plot arc that you’ll see.

First, I had a really hard time figuring out the setting of this book, both in time and place. They say the name of the town several times, but I can’t figure out what region it’s in, which is kind of unsettling. And as for the time period, WHO KNOWS! It was written in 2005, so one assumes it takes place in the present unless otherwise informed. But then there are some weird things that knock it out of 2005. There are no cell phones. The only place the kids have a radio is in a truck. The fashion is super ambiguous. At one point the girls are changing into pants they think are more fashion-appropriate, and they are confusingly described. I think they’re supposed to be bell bottoms, which made it feel very 70’s, but then they are talking about how important it is that the pants are so long they touch the ground. This sounded a lot like me in high school, which made the whole thing seem very 90’s. Then there’s the fact that one of the characters has a job computerizing some data, which also made it feel very 90’s. There are several music references, none of them post-1960’s, but that could mean anything. A kid who is learning to play guitar is likely to be learning some older classics. So, basically, I had no friggin’ clue where or when anyone was. After reading the book, I dug around a bit and found that All Alone in the Universe, the book Perkins wrote before Criss Cross with many of the the same characters, takes place in 1969, which puts Criss Cross somewhere in 1970 or 1971. Okay. But WHY? Why is this set in the 70’s? There is no conceivable reason for it, other than that’s when the author grew up. If you’re going to bother to set something in the past, you need to give us more to hold on to than a vague reference to bell bottoms and a lack of contemporary comforts.

There is some interesting character development, and some nice reflection on what it’s like to be a teenager. (Speaking of the teenager thing, I feel this book is distinctly more YA than middle grade.) But because the book jumps around between the different characters so often, and because I had a hard time placing myself in the book, I didn’t feel the connection to the characters I think a book like this really needs to have the impact the author wanted for me.

Would kids like it? Preteens and early teens could find some wisdom in these pages. It definitely feels like a “girl” book, even if a lot of the characters are boys. I hate the idea of girl and boy books, but there really is a distinct girliness to this.

Are there “funny bits”? The author isn’t humorless, but there is nothing laugh-out-loud or even chuckle-to-yourself funny. But it certainly isn’t the depression fest characteristic of a lot of Newbery winners!

Do I understand why it won? That’s a tough one. Looking at the Honor books for that year, it looks like 2006 might have been kind of a tough year for children’s lit! Nothing to come out of 2006 has really endured. This might be a case of “sure, why not?”

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