Perkins, Lynnne Rae. Criss Cross.

NY: HarperCollins, 2005.

This story is YA in intent but it’s a good read for anyone, really. The characters are around fourteen, mostly, all living the same neighborhood. The plot seems haphazard at first, jumping from one individual or small group of friends to another as they move from spring into summer, but the theme is “connectedness,” the ways in which people’s lives intersect for the strangest reasons — or for no discernible reason at all.Sometimes it’s taking out the garbage, sometimes it’s losing a necklace. Hector wants to learn to play the guitar and he’s struggling through the free lessons in the Presbyterian church basement. Debbie is making wishes but being so judicious about it, hemming them about with careful conditions, that “you could end up with a wish so shapeless that it could come true and you wouldn’t even know it.” Lenny is discovering, though he’s otherwise a mediocre student, that he understands intuitively how to make things work, that he can see how to fix things in his head. And then there’s the old German lady Debbie sometimes helps out, and her visiting grandson, and the little adventure they all have. And the pleasure stay-at-homes have forgotten, of being somewhere new for the first time. And there’s a nice, slightly-sad-but-hopeful ending. The pace might seem slow, but it’s really just careful and relaxed. This is not a pell-mell “action” book.

There are some really nice bits of writing here. (Perkins deservedly won the Newberry for this one — and it’s not her first award, either.) Like Debbie being asked if she wants to do something she doesn’t want to do, and immediately saying “No” and then “waiting for reinforcement reasons to arrive.” Or Hector trying to think of ways to make himself interesting to the new girl in the neighborhood — more interesting than the football player sitting next to him. Or Dan Persik (said football player) considering how much fun it is enticing girls to have a crush on you. Some eye-catching images, too, like the elderly nun pushing a shopping cart full of watermelons down the sidewalk. (Her mission is never explained, just like real life.) Or the fact that short, black, plastic combs are to be found almost anywhere on streets or roadsides. (I’ve noticed that about single shoes.) Or, “It bothered Patty that electrons were so constantly in motion. Science gave her the creeps.” Or, how does Nancy Drew know how to do so many things? “You never see her practicing.” Chapter 22 (the chapters are pretty short) is written in two parallel columns, describing a boy and a girl in adjacent back yards (one reading Wuthering Heights, the other working on a dirt bike) each being only peripherally aware of each other. An interesting narrative effect. The author assumes her readers are smart enough not to need to be told everything explicitly, either. She’ll drop hints and let them figure out the joke on their own. As when Debbie and her friend, Patty, make up quotes for the senior pictures in the school yearbook, but do them as haiku because “then it can be about nothing but sound like it’s about something.” Good stuff.

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