Thursday, April 21, 2022

As Brave as You by Jason Reynolds

Source of book: Audiobook from the library


This was one of the audiobooks we listened to on our recent spring break camping trip. I recently read a poetry book by Jason Reynolds, Ain’t Burned All the Bright, beautifully illustrated by Jason Griffin. I enjoyed it so much, I figured I would give one of Reynolds’ kid books a change. 

 As Brave as You is a delightful book. It is by turns humorous, poignant, heartwarming, horrifying, and thoughtful. It feels so very real, with great characters, and a mix of the personal and social events driving the plot. The themes are pretty deep, too. What is the nature of manhood and bravery? How does one address generational trauma? What does one do with guilt? And, in the center of it all is a complex and touching relationship between a boy and his grandfather. 


Reynolds’ story is told by Genie (short for Eugene), about a summer month he and his older brother Eddie spend with their paternal grandparents. Their parents have hit a rough patch, and decide that some time together without the kids might help them work things out a bit. (This isn’t crazy, actually. I swear 90% of the arguments my wife and I had in our early years were caused by a lack of sleep and personal space, not any underlying problems. We needed a nap and some time away, which was hard to get with very small children. It is what it is - and thanks to my mother-in-law for all she helped with back in the day.) 


We can tell pretty quickly into the story that this family has some issues. Genie probably has an anxiety disorder, because he keeps asking himself “why am I so stupid” everytime he does something mildly foolish. Well, foolish isn’t even the word. Whenever he acts like a kid his age. Because both he and Eddie are their ages: 11 and 13 respectively. Their dad doesn’t seem to be on good terms with his own dad, and it is the two women who work out the details of the trip. 


Genie is not sure what to make of his grandfather. His grandmother? Well, she calls them regularly and seems to be a pretty normal, if a bit strict, southern African American lady. But grandpa? Well, he is just a bit….different. Soon on, Genie discovers that grandpa has been blind for years, as a result of glaucoma. But there is also the fact that he carries a gun, drinks some really strange alcohol, and has a room that nobody but he goes into. 


To make matters more mysterious, there is this old house in the back of the acreage that has been deserted for years, and has a tree growing through it, which nobody wants to talk about. But there is also the enterprising and spunky young lady, Tess, the next place down, who Ernie falls in love with, and her fairly crazy parents. The father who runs an illicit bar, makes hooch, and hunts squirrels on the grandparents’ property; and the mother who is a hypochondriac. And then there are the assorted characters at the flea market, like the guy who sells celebrity teeth for good luck. 


What secrets lurk in the family? And what is Genie to do when he accidentally breaks a model that is the last treasure from his uncle, who was killed in Desert Storm? And why did that death tear the family apart? Oh, and somehow Jim Crow violence has something to do with the trauma that haunts this family. 


Then, when things go awry when grandpa and his friend try to teach Ernie how to shoot a gun - a family coming-of-age tradition for generations - all of the past seems to come crowding in on everyone. 


If this summary gives you the impression that there is some heavy stuff going on in this book, you would be right. But also wrong. It also contains stuff like “poopidity,” softshell crab sandwiches, hilariously ineffective bird trapping, and such delightfully colorful and believable characters that it doesn’t feel like a heavy or dark book. From the two books I have read of his, I would say that Jason Reynolds has a wonderful feeling for family relationships, with all their flaws and joys and connections. Reynolds has stated in interviews that he doesn’t “try” to write for a particular age group, but just writes the characters and lets their stories and voices dictate where the story goes. Which is probably why this story would be equally compelling as a book for grownups too. 


Reynolds is one of a number of younger (than me at least) African American authors who have written amazing books over the last decade. He also reminds me of Christopher Paul Curtis and Jacqueline Woodson (also favorites of my kids) in writing books about African American kids that aren’t focused on civil rights as the theme, but write about ordinary families and people. Not that there isn’t a place for the other kind, but part of the process of true integration is a complete normalization of the kind of diversity that we find in real life. Genie and Eddie are completely relatable kids, whether you are black, white, male, female, rich, poor, or anywhere in between. That is the hallmark of a good writer, of course, but also a promising sign for the future. 


I am looking forward to exploring more of Reynolds’ books both with the kids, and on my own. I have really enjoyed the two books I have read so far.  


The audiobook was narrated by actor Guy Lockard, who did a great job with the voices. There were a few times the compression was a bit insufficient for car travel (a common complaint I have with audiobooks – I hate having to adjust the volume constantly), but that isn’t his fault.

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