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criss cross

22 February 2006

The 2006 Newbery Medal book Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins was another dark horse, so unheralded that the major chain stores didn't start stocking it till several weeks after the Medal announcement. When I finally picked up a copy, it took me another ten days or so to get through its 337 large-type pages (with plenty of pictures by the author). Criss Cross is drab and lifeless, a kind of hardcover sedative. It's the kind of book you'd recommend to kids who need serious calming down.

Criss Cross is set in the town of Seldem, a quasi-suburb of a semi-fictionalized Pittsburgh; it's a sequel to Perkins's 1999 novel All Alone in the Universe, which centers on Debbie Pelbry, a quiet, pensive girl who moves through life in slow-motion, gradually feeling out the juncture between her muted emotions and her inchoate social skills.

Debbie's life intersects with those of several other middle-class white kids in Seldem and further afield: Hector, who is slowly and tenaciously learning to play the guitar; Dan Persik, a jock who can be considerate and asinine by turns; Peter, a chance visitor from California who goes on an adventure with Debbie (a bus trip to the next town over!); Lenny, an introspective youngster with a gift for mechanics.

All of the teens in Debbie's ambit are gentle, slow of speech, mildly curious about small animals, small machines, painted toenails, snack foods, and found objects. Mixing boredom and contentedness, they make their way placidly through this plotless novel. You would say that they lead lives of quiet desperation if they weren't so filled with the still serene joy of seeing heaven in a wild flower . . .

. . . wait a minute. These kids can't be stoned, can they?

No. No, I don't think that HarperCollins and the Newbery judges are advocating the stoner lifestyle to our children. I hope.

Criss Cross reads rather like a wish-fulfillment. What if our kids were so mellow, so detached, so drained of energy that their hormones and righteous indignations, their impulsive struggles toward independence and their heedless self-endangerments were erased overnight, so that they became docile high-on-life types, vaguely resigned to perpetuating the risk-free, event-free lives that we, their parents, imagine ourselves to be leading? We would arrive at a world as comfortable and safe as that of Lois Lowry's The Giver, only without the drugs and the euthanasia.

For example, this unretouched, near-random episode from Criss Cross:

"Go see if that coffee is ready and put it in the thermos," said Leon, the first words that had been spoken aloud.

"Okay," said Lenny. He was feeling somewhat alert now.

In the kitchen he poured the coffee into the thermos. He screwed on the lid that was like a plug, then the one that was a cup, and then he thought maybe he would have a cup, too. He took a mug from the cupboard and poured some half-and-half into it. He considered the bowl of sugar cubes and put five cubes in his pocket. (297-98)

That isn't just a stray descriptive passage, either. It is the basic stuff of Criss Cross, a leisurely marvelling at the way things go together in everyday life, the patience and the slow cherishing of the quotidian by this unremarkable, remarkable cadre of children.

During my slow trek through Criss Cross, I happened to watch John Hughes's fine 1985 film The Breakfast Club. In the film, five unremarkable, insecure teens are sentenced to a Saturday-long detention by a capricious school administrator. Like Perkins's characters, the Breakfast Club kids are comfortable, suburban kids with too much time on their hands for the little they have to do in life. But they are intensely alive. They suffer from sexual frustration, social jealousies and mortifications, aspirations and flights of egotism that are too great for their circumscribed world to contain, reckless and pointless behavior, the urge to use drugs, the urge to test for dominance in small combats. Hughes's teen films were full of dramatic kids, in a word: characters you could get interested in, however limited the venue of their actions. Perkins's kids are just . . . well, sponges comes to mind, a metaphor that Perkins uses early on in the novel for Hector, her ultra-mellow singer/songwriter.

Criss Cross certainly avoids the Grand-Guignol vein of children's fiction on display in last year's Newbery medalist, Cynthia Kadohata's Kira-Kira. Nobody dies of cancer, or gets killed in a fiery drunken car crash, or is deported by totalitarian authorities, or for that matter whisked through a magical wardrobe or challenged to combat by Lord Voldemort. Nothing happens at all. We learn, instead, that kids like to look at adult life in a wistful, premonitory way, packing bags of tiny memories that will get them through the tedium ahead – preferably in the company of a good book, of course; Debbie is such an avid reader that one of the first things we see her doing is getting a sunburn because she's so fascinated by the book she's reading. If you're going to win a Newbery Medal, such a scene is obligatory.

Perkins's books have been praised for their verisimilitude; but as a picture of the lives of teens, Criss Cross strikes me as quite fantastic.

Perkins, Lynne Rae. Criss Cross. NY: HarperCollins, 2005.