by Jason Reynolds. Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, 2016. 432 pages. ISBN 978-1-4814-1590-3 Click here to purchase
In just three years, Jason Reynolds has established himself as a rising star in young adult literature. As Brave As You
is his first middle-grade novel and with it, he proves himself to be just as skillful a writer for a younger audience. This is a book I want to put into everyone's hands. It's deep, funny, and original.
Eleven-year-old Genie and his older brother Ernie are city kids, used to navigating the familiar streets of their Brooklyn neighborhood. When they are sent to rural Virginia to spend a month with their grandparents while their parents work on their marriage, they both face a high learning curve. Everything is new to them -- daily chores, working in the hot sun to pick peas from the garden, and living by grandma's strict rules. Even the tea is different -- too sweet!
Ernie approaches everything with his usual Brooklyn bravado, trying to school his younger brother in how things should be done and, most of all, trying to win the affections of Tess, a wise-cracking girl his age who lives on the nearest farm. Genie prefers to hang back a bit and observe. He has a lot of questions about everything, and he writes them down in a spiral notebook to keep track of them so he can look for the answers once he access to the internet again. Being in his father's childhood home fills him with even more questions. Why doesn't his dad get along with his grandfather? What was his dad's brother, who was killed in Desert Storm, like? How can he repair the little model truck he wrecked the first day, one of the few mementos that remained from his dead uncle?
He is especially curious about his grandfather who is blind but who is just as capable as a person with sight. How does he do it? Why does he carry a gun in his waistband? And what's behind the forbidden door that Grandpop goes through every day and closes behind him? By listening to Grandpop's stories and asking him questions, Genie eventually earns his trust, and he is allowed inside the secret room, a real honor since even Grandma can't go in. Genie is amazed to learn that Grandpop has recreated the outdoors inside the room -- complete with five live, singing swallows, whom Genie names after the Jackson 5. He learns that the one thing his grandfather is afraid to do is to go outside on his own. Thus, the room.
When Genie accidentally kills Michael Jackson by feeding him apple seeds instead of dead flies, he enlists the help of Ernie and Tess. Have the brothers developed enough country smarts to catch a live swallow? And will Genie be able to replace it without Grandpop knowing before they have to go back to Brooklyn?
Throughout the novel, Genie is driven by his desire to repair the model truck and to catch a swallow, both of which give dramatic tension to the story. But it's the human relationships that give the story its heart. Like most eleven year olds, Genie is awkward and unsure of where he stands, especially with people he doesn't know well, but even, at times, with his brother, whom he admires and wants to emulate. And then there are the often inscrutable relationships between adults -- his parents, his grandparents, his father and uncle and, most of all, his father and grandfather. There's a lot for Genie to figure out but by keeping his ears, eyes, and heart open, he will learn to navigate the dynamics within his own family, which will prepare him to navigate the wider world.
Reviewed by KT Horning