Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Winger by Andrew Smith

Hello all!  My name is Angie Manfredi and I am super-excited to be a contributor here at Guys LitWire.  I’ll be blogging once a month and I guess there’s one thing I need to start with: I don’t think there are books for guys and books for girls.  Nope. I believe only in books for readers. If you ask me to recommend a good book for a guy, I’d be stumped.  Why?  Because I’d need to know more about that guy. So, I won’t be writing about “books for guys”.  I don’t even know what those would be.  What I will be writing about is books about guys.  Books about guys who are assassins, books about guys from history, books about guys who fall in love, books about the guy next door, books about guys who are Kings.  I want to write about the best books about guys and featuring guy characters, to recommend them to readers, not genders and then leave it YOU to determine which readers - boys or girls or even those who don’t identify as either - are right for those titles.

And so, for me, it’s fitting that my first post here at Guys LitWire is about one of the best books about guys I’ve ever read: Andrew Smith’s Winger.
You might have seen Winger around this year - it’s been sweeping up accolades and starred reviews since its publication in May. The best news about Winger is that it lives up to the hype.  It really is THAT special and funny and daring and original and it has as its lead character Ryan Dean West: a guy who, I think, will be long remembered and discussed  in young adult literature.

Winger is the story of Ryan Dean’s junior year at Pine Mountain, a boarding school for rich kids. Junior year is shaping up to be rough for him: he has an unrequited crush on his best female friend and he’s been moved into dorm for troublemakers where his roommate is a fellow rugby player who also happens to be a terrible bully.  And Ryan Dean has one other junior year complication: he’s only fourteen years old.

Yes, Ryan Dean is gifted, so he’s been promoted through school.  But being a fourteen year old junior is not without its own set of complications.  Who, exactly, is his peer group?  His classmates or the kids his own age? He’s too far ahead of one group and not quite mentally ready for the other.  Is his love for Annie (that best friend) unrequited because they just aren’t a match or because he’s younger than her? Winger is the story of how Ryan Dean starts to figure all this (and more) out and how, even more importantly and somewhat more painfully, he comes to realize that some things in life you just can’t figure out.

One of the things I loved best about WInger is Ryan Dean’s voice, it’s a truly authentic guy voice.  Towards the end of the book several characters are sent into town on a late night dare.  Along the way they have one of those legendary nights you had when you were a teenager: when everything seems too impossibly weird to be actually happening.  This interlude is one of my favorite pieces of YA writing ever: it is laugh-out-loud hilarious (see, there’s an old man screaming his head off in the backseat and he might be a murderer…) and also deeply, emotionally resonant, as this night will be a time for Ryan Dean to own up to some of his selfish and hurtful behavior.  When I was reading this part of Winger I honestly forgot I was reading a book and became totally immersed in this story.  I thought I was listening to a teenage boy tell me the kind of absurd and yet beautiful story they so often spill out to me.  It felt that familiar, it felt that real.

All of Winger has that ring of truth: from the details about the sports Ryan Dean plays (primarily rugby, but there’s a lot about running in this book as well) to the comics he draws that are interspersed with the text.  These are just two of the elements that make Winger, while literary and so finely crafted, also ideal for reluctant readers.  There’s great sports action, comic illustrations by Sam Bosma throughout the text, romance without sap or sentimentality, and hilarious and often vulgar conversations between teenage guys.

Ryan Dean is a truly special character. He grows up in a thousand ways in Winger: from learning that the answer to the question “How do you treat girls?” is “The way any human would want to be treated” to learning that the the overwhelming power dynamics of bullying at his school aren’t the sort of thing that come without consequence. What Smith does best here is give these lessons, these questions, to his teen readers themselves. There are no easy answers or escapes for Ryan Dean West and what makes Winger so wonderful, so rewarding an experience,  is that readers are left grappling with the big questions and consequences too. This is a book that makes readers think and feel and yes, laugh and mourn.

Winger, with its hilarious and pitch-perfect teen boy voice and its gut-punch of raw emotion that just sweeps you away, is one of my favorite reads of 2013. It is highly recommended for high school collections and I think it would be an amazing book club choice, because it really lends itself to discussion. It’s good for readers who like sports action, authentic and hilarious narrators in contemporary fiction, and intense, realistic young adult fiction.  I think it’s a good read-alike for fans of Looking for Alaska by John Green.

Winger is not always an easy read but that’s part of what makes it seem so true and feel so satisfying.  As Ryan Dean West discovers during his junior year, life’s not always easy.  But that doesn’t take away the joy of it.  Winger has that hardness but also that joy and, at the end, so will readers.

1 comment :

Matthew MacNish said...

"[L]earning that the the overwhelming power dynamics of bullying at his school aren’t the sort of thing that come without consequence." Is possibly the best summary of the ending of this novel I have ever seen.