Any book with Scrabble at its heart is bound to be a favorite with me, but I loved “You Go First,” by Erin Entrada Kelly, for many other reasons as well.
The two main characters, Charlotte and Ben, live 1,000 miles apart. She lives outside Philadelphia, and he lives in a small Louisiana town.
They found each other via an online Scrabble group for elementary kids. Once they moved to middle school, they couldn’t use that interface, but they continued to play on their own.
Other than their friendly rivalry over Scrabble, they don’t necessarily have much in common: Ben is obsessed with Harry Potter, recycling and evolution; Charlotte loves word scrambles and obsessive online researching, wishes she had a nickname (she tells Ben her name is Lottie), and dreams of being a geologist.
At the beginning of the story, they are just Scrabble opponents, but early on, Ben realizes he has no one to call if something great happens to him. And so he calls Lottie a few times, just to practice.
Meanwhile, both Charlotte and Ben have big, hard things happening in their lives: Lottie’s older dad is in the hospital recovering from a heart attack, and her best friend is starting to drift away, and Ben’s normal, everyday, dependable parents are getting a divorce.
In both cases, the kids wonder if they haven’t been paying close enough attention as these huge changes seem to have come out of the blue.
Interestingly, these aren’t the things they talk about to one another. It’s enough, it seems, just to have someone else on the other end of the line.
Both characters can feel their lives shifting, and they do not like it. Charlotte even has a geologic term for it: “slow slips,” which are also known as silent earthquakes. Nothing dramatic, but still lots of change.
In Charlotte’s case, Bridget, Charlotte’s best friend since forever, isn’t interested anymore in rocks or in the games they used to play and would rather wear trendy clothes and hang out with girls who giggle.
In addition, Charlotte is dealing with a stark reminder of her father’s mortality and is regretting not spending more time with her dad. Their physical Scrabble board has become dust covered, and when he took her to the museum to enjoy his favorite paintings, she felt bored and wanted to go home.
Ben is shocked when his parents announce they are getting divorced, and disappointed that the lunchroom friends he had in elementary school have drifted away.
I can’t precisely put my finger on why I like these two characters so much. I guess in Ben’s case, although he hasn’t got any friends, he has a quiet self confidence, and he handles the school bullies in a pretty calm, almost detached way.
As for Charlotte, the author does such a good job showing her distress over her guilt and worry about her dad. In the end, none of these issues is exactly “fixed,” but the storylines are resolved in very satisfying ways.
Speaking of Kelly’s characters, another book of hers I recently read, “Hello Universe,” has a larger and slightly quirkier set of characters.
Young readers might especially like this story, which includes Virgil, a small, quiet boy in the midst of a loud, energetic family who has a beloved guinea pig and a crush on Valencia, a strong, independent girl with hearing loss who befriends a stray dog; Kaori, who reads the stars and believes in omens; and Chet, a bully who is afraid of dogs.
In some ways it’s hard to talk about Kelly’s books, because while the reader falls right into them, nothing really huge happens.
These are not quest books filled with drama, but rather books readers gravitate to because of her down-to-earth and likable characters. She makes you want to hang out with Virgil or Valencia, or even with Ben or Charlotte and just be their friends.
We can’t ask much more than that of kidlit novels!