You Go First - Valentine's Day Book Review
I will admit, my mother and I periodically have a tiny little game tradition at home, and that would be a nice little game of Scrabble. The idea of searching for potentially eligible words with the cards you’re dealt with in the form of letter tiles, who can say no to that?
Well, funny enough, I stumbled into a children’s book this past month that looked as if it would’ve used Scrabble as its focal point...or so I thought. While it didn’t exactly focus a lot on Scrabble, the story as it was was very intricate and I ate it up quicker than I thought I would. That book is ‘You Go First’, written by now-Newbery-Award-winning novelist Erin Entrada Kelly.
The story focused on two children, both of them lived on opposite (ish) sides of the country: Ben, who lived in Lanester, LA, and Charlotte, who lived in Philadelphia, PA. The story dove into both of their individual lives as they went through some heavy-handed dilemmas within their community circles. In Charlotte’s case, her father had a heart attack and was currently going through heart surgery, leaving Charlotte to fear for her father’s life. Not helping matters was when, one day, she volunteered to join her school’s art club with her best friend, Bridget, but in the process of doing so, heard some hurtful things said about her from the last person she wanted to hear them from. In Ben’s case, his parents were getting a divorce, which completely befuddled and angered him as he didn't remember them arguing over anything. His middle school life was not much easier, as he had to live amongst many primarily ignorant classmates who did not have his best interests at heart, which included recycling. The peer pressure from school and from his parents’ divorce were getting the best of him, so what did he do?
Well, not only does that lead to the third aspect of the story, but this was where the Scrabble connections kicked in. It turned out both Ben and Charlotte played in an online Scrabble game and they constantly tried to best each other within the high rankings of the Scrabble leaderboard. More than once, of course, they DID get in touch with each other through phone chatting, resulting in some nice, humble conversations between them. During one such call, Ben was almost going to tell Charlotte that his parents were divorcing, only to come up with a white lie at the last minute and tell her that he would be running for Student Body President at his school. So then, both Ben and Charlotte had to go through their own dilemmas: Charlotte with her handling of the ups and downs of her new family plight, and Ben with getting his act together and running for Student Body President in his own Benny way, while also finding some sense in his parents’ divorce.
The first time I read the premise for ‘You Go First’, I thought this would be some kind of ‘You’ve Got Mail’-inspired story, where the two main leads communicated with each other digitally without having ever met. But now, that felt more like a third-tier compared to the primary focus of the story, and that was on Ben and Charlotte's individual lives. And, not a single point of view was overtaken by the other; the story flip-flopped between its focus on Ben and Charlotte one chapter at a time. As a matter of fact, this was a pleasantly odd wink to how Scrabble players take turns in finding the right words to use to further themselves into the game, much like how Ben and Charlotte were furthering themselves into life and into the narrative. That is some clever subtlety going on there.
The way Kelly dove into \Ben and Charlotte's lifestyles showed just how much she knew about the bumpy roads and highlights that came with middle school life, or even just life in general. She weaved the events in the story with a slightly pinpointed focus and emphasized the importance of such matters in a similar way middle schoolers would have emphasized them. Charlotte, for instance, constantly stressed out over how much time she had left with her father. One particular moment that rattled her in her reminiscence was when she was gearing up to go to a local pizza joint with Bridget and turning her father down, even though he clearly wanted to join up with them. And this was shortly before he had his heart attack. And with Ben, he clearly couldn’t have put his finger on why his parents were divorcing, and he treated the news somewhat as if his parents were lying to him throughout his entire life. This, in some ways, justified his frustration toward his parents.
Not only that, but the main characters themselves were really interesting. Charlotte was your every day middle school girl who happened to be a sucker for geology. Her tastes tied into her struggles when she at first didn’t share her father’s taste in art, but after her father‘s heart attack, she tried to get an understanding of why her father loved art so much. With Ben, he’s your every day middle school boy who liked Harry Potter, played Minecraft (besides Scrabble) and was a recycling junkie. He was also relatable in his tendency to do the right thing, whether it was to catch someone doing something wrong or to not miss a single day of school. He also was pretty shy; at times, he was afraid to try to confront his parents about their divorce, and he did occasionally struggle to stand out during his campaigns for Student Body President, even though he did try his absolute hardest to make it work.
Reflecting back on how Ben and Charlotte’s sides of the story functioned in their own ways, I sort of found Charlotte’s to be the strongest of the two. Her dilemmas were not only personal, but they did they tie into her struggles in middle school, especially as far as her friends were concerned. Ben’s side of the story, I thought, felt a skosh discombobulated. He was taken aback by his parents’ divorce, but then he decided to run for Student Body President at his school. Kind of an odd way for Ben to try to forget about his troubles, if that was the idea. Although, I did wonder more than once if he did it all in the hopes of getting himself noticed within the student body. If that was the case, considering his parents’ divorce and probably not spending enough time with him, then I wouldn’t have blamed him. I might have to read this again to get a better idea of what’s going on, but until then, I do acknowledge that it emphasized the relatable aspects of Ben and his journey. Ultimately, I think both Charlotte’s and Ben’s stories worked, albeit in different methods: Charlotte’s worked for its substance, and Ben’s worked for its relatability.
Shortly after reading You Go First, I also felt a little bummed about there not being enough conversations between Charlotte and Ben. Besides their individual subplots, I was looking forward to this one a lot. It looked like it would’ve been a good opportunity for the protagonists to open themselves up to each other and bare their souls a little. I did get some of that in the book, but at the same time, I do realize this might have distracted from their personal journeys. Fortunately, whenever Ben and Charlotte chatted with each other, it felt almost exactly like how kids who never met would have communicated: unsure of what right thing to say at first, only to get better at it once they felt more comfortable with each other. Even better, there was enough of that to keep me satisfied, and not so much of it that it compromised the rest of the story. It just felt right...a little.
This also ties into what else I like about the story: you may have your troubles and your worries, and you may struggle with life, but you’re not alone. No matter what, no matter where, and no matter how, there’s always going to be someone out there who has the exact same dilemmas as you, and if you’re lucky, you guys can work off of each other and pull each other out of the pits of despair and into the lights of hope.
So yeah, there’s a lot to like about ‘You Go First’, and it is a good read not just to Scrabble junkies like me and my mother, but to the general bookworm to boot. more likely than not, you might go into the story expecting some nice Scrabble maneuvers, but then you get blown away with its accurate portrayal of life in the real world and in middle school, as well as with an uplifting message about there being always someone out there who shares your struggles and will have your back. Make your move and give this a read. You’ll be pleasantly surprised what you’ll be dealt with.
Happy Valentine's Day!