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The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Perkins, Lynne Rae Criss Cross. Greenwillow, 2005 [352p]
Library ed. ISBN 0-06-009273-4 $16.89
Trade ed. ISBN 0-06-009272-6 $15.99
Reviewed from galleys     R* Gr. 5-8

Novels with a specific plot may be the easiest to describe, but they're not necessarily the best books. Sometimes a title manages to address some of the aspects of life that are most difficult to describe yet important to experience. And if you're Lynne Rae Perkins, you can remain comfortingly, invitingly accessible even as you explore abstract notions such as the possibilities within us, the possibilities between us, and our openness to both.

That's the underlying theme in this chronicle of a neighborhood's summer, where a set of young teens turn to thoughts of change: Debbie wishes “something different would happen. Something good. To me,” while her old friend Hector contemplates the future: “He felt himself changing, but into what?” Hector takes guitar lessons in the hope of capturing some charismatic magic and conceives a crush on a cute classmate; Debbie hangs out with her friend Patty, loses a necklace with her name on it, yearns for hunky Dan, and ends up helping an old lady around the house, which leads to an entry-level romance with the old lady's grandson. Throughout, kids hang out together in configurations that hold a flickering undercurrent of meaning and that might start to mean other things; moments sometimes reach their potential of significance and sometimes slide by, making way for other possibilities.

Occasional references suggest a setting of a few decades ago, but this is hardly a historical novel: it's set any time when kids can hang around together and look at one another anew as they grow. The narrative ripples fluidly into occasional structural variations such as dialogues or side-by-side columns of simultaneous experience, and there's a recurring Midsummer Night's Dream allusion (Debbie fixes on Dan because he's the first thing she sees as she awakens to the world, while Dan hovers between staying, conceptually, a donkey and turning into something better) that will slide by most readers but tickle the knowing few. Perkins' thumbnail art, sketches, and interpolated snapshots function sometimes as diagram, sometimes as editorial comment, sometimes as illustration, and add to the dimensionality of the experience. The book's feeling remains uncomplicated, though, with such variations merely a meander through interesting territory to look at things a different way. Perkins is the mistress pluperfect of plain speech that conveys ethereal concepts (“Debbie had been separated from her moorings and there was a spongy piece of her left open to the universe in whatever form it might take”), and she brilliantly captures the adolescent-level Zen that thoughtful kids bring to their assessment of the world (and of which adults often have lost the habit). This isn't a book so bogged down in the ineffable as to be uneventful, however; there's Debbie's romance and heroic intervention when her old lady falls ill, her necklace's wandering trip around town, Hector's increasing absorption and skill in songwriting. Mostly, though, this is a book that masters replication of the way life incorporates events into a larger context rather than consisting of them, and the unforced, leisurely rhythm allows the richness of the individual characters' thoughts and experiences to predominate over plot points.

Ultimately, Criss Cross reassures as it explores. By focusing on the crucial questions of early adolescence (Can I be in reality the person I imagine being? Do we connect with one another?) it grants them significance; by answering them gently with a tacit “sometimes” it allows for the possibility of such achievements at another time even if young readers (and the rest of us) don't always manage them now. And it's good to hear that “mistakes would have to be made. Maybe a lot of mistakes. It was okay. They can't hear me, but I want to tell them it's okay, they're doing just fine.” It's a glorious thing, “waking up on a midsummer night.” Or any time.

Deborah Stevenson, Editor

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Cover illustration by Lynne Rae Perkins from Criss Cross © 2005. Used by permission of Greenwillow Books.


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