Why, oh WHY aren't more people talking about this book?! Fantastic writing, awesome characters, a great twist on the coming-out story - oh, and green hair, which may or may not have been part of my attraction. Seriously, folks, this is a book you NEED to get reading!
Daniel "Sprout" Bradford moved from Long Island to Kansas after his mother's death on a whim of his father's. Sprout still isn't sure if Kansas was the destination all along or if it's just where his dad ran out of steam. In his new small, insular town, so different from Long Island, Sprout is immediately pegged as an outsider, different, even before anyone knows he's gay or he first starts dying his hair.
It's now Sprout's junior year of high school and the advanced English teacher, Mrs. Miller, has decided to stake her reputation for educating essay-contest-champions on Sprout, going with a junior to ensure she'll have a student with an unprecedented two wins in a row. Sprout spends much of the summer with Mrs. Miller while his best (only?) friend, Ruthie, is visiting Europe, practicing speed writing or writing essays under ridiculous constraints ("don't use the letter e") to prep his writing skills for the big essay contest.
The tutoring with Mrs. Miller continues even as she begins dating Sprout's washed up drunk of a father and into the school year, where Mrs. Miller manipulates Sprout's schedule to make sure he isn't influenced by lesser English teachers. Through Sprout's writing we also see him develop a new friendship with Ty, a small, wiry kid who lives just down the street from Sprout's trailer, and who possibly has more problems in his life than Sprout does.
I'm often asking for more novels that aren't about being gay, where a gay character can have adventures that are totally independent of his or her sexual orientation. I found Sprout to be a twist on that, because in some ways this novel is about being gay - it's just not necessarily Sprout who is struggling with this. In fact, Sprout seems to be 100% okay with himself, and we never see that there was any sort of doubt or questioning in his mind. His sexual orientation is just another part of who he is, like having green hair, and the struggles we see are from other characters, reacting either to Sprout's or their own sexuality.
(Side note about Sprout's green hair: what kind of dye is that kid using?! I've bought hair dye from Wal-Mart before; the only type that should be flaking off is the sort that washes out immediately. If it's the sort that requires bleaching hair and weekly root touch-ups, you're doing something totally wrong if it's flaking off and making you leave green finger prints everywhere. Sorry. Had to get that out of my system.)
This is a very wordy and self-aware novel. It's hard to tell when Sprout's stories are part of an essay and when they're just narration. Sprout is clearly an accomplished writer who has an in-character obsession with the dictionary, which gives Peck a reason to have Sprout using words that most teenagers wouldn't be able to use un-self-consciously. Also, since Sprout is aware that he has readers, Peck is able to slip in some masterful foreshadowing that totally ramps up the tension for the last third or so of the book. I swear it's just one line, but Sprout mentions that he hopes his current behavior will make us forgive him for the terrible stuff that he does later, and later on in the story the tension was almost unbearable for me as I waited for that "terrible stuff" to make an appearance. I absolutely love smart novels, ones that require the reader to step up to the challenge, rather than talking down to the reader.
So now I've read four of the five nominees in the children's/YA category of the Lambda Literary awards (the others being Ash, The Vast Fields of Ordinary and How Beautiful the Ordinary. The library still doesn't have P.E. Ryan's In Mike We Trust). The Lambda awards are being presented TONIGHT (and if tickets weren't $100, I would be there). I'll send out a tweet as soon as I know the winner (you are following me on Twitter, right?) and look for an update here on Friday (or Saturday, if I have a lot to say about the winner!).
Also, if you missed it yesterday, be sure to check out the Gringolandia giveaway posted yesterday!