Monday, September 5, 2011

Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins

Lynne Rae Perkins’ Criss Cross follows two fourteen-year-old protagonists, Debbie and Hector, as their experiences of young adulthood “criss cross” with one another throughout the novel.  Hector is learning how to play guitar. Debbie is trying to will something magical to happen. Both are surrounded by a larger group of friends who are similarly trying to navigate the space between childhood and adulthood. Allusions and references identify the setting as the 1970s, but Perkins' ability to write character and dialogue makes Criss Cross almost timeless. She connects character with character and makes their actions affect how the story plays out for others in the novel. In this way, Criss Cross feels like it connects outwards as a larger story than is contained to the novel. Perkins becomes deeply involved in the uncertainty of the characters, and the universality she enacts through the story allows readers to connect with this uncertainty while crossing reader experience with character depiction.

Although the story is a very strong point of this novel, Perkins also does a lot with form. For example, she scatters hand drawn illustrations throughout. My favorite comes at the beginning of the novel, an illustration of “The Spectrum of Connectedness” which places 0% connection at one end and 100% connection at the other. And at either end Perkins writes, “No one is here – no one.” In between “people move back and forth in this area like molecules in steam.” The images support the story, but more importantly, Perkins seems to use them when a visual depiction is more effective than words. She chooses the moments of illustration carefully instead of using them as a gimmick.

One section of the book employs a sort of newspaper column format where the page splits in half to follow the action of Debbie on one side and of Lenny on the other. Debbie is reading Wuthering Heights. Lenny is reading Popular Mechanics. The parallel structure does a compare/contrast thing between the content each character seeks out to read while also offering a really complementary chapter that takes both sides of character perspective and makes them look like one. 

Perkins also uses haiku to tell story. Debbie thinks that the senior photos in the yearbook should use haikus instead of quotes, such as “Jeff White is handsome, / but his hair is so greasy. / If he would wash it --.” The poetry of haiku is supported by Perkins' inclusion of song lyrics in the novel. All of these formal innovations really show how adolescent and young adult literature push against generic conventions.

Although Hector and Debbie are the main characters in this book, Perkins also introduces Debbie’s missing necklace as something that is sort of like a character and sort of like a plot point. Debbie’s necklace physically travels from place to place as the book progresses, and it encounters other characters and situations that border Debbie’s and Hector’s. Chapter Nineteen is called “Where the Necklace Went,” which makes it possible to map out the journey of Debbie’s necklace physically by location in the book, but also in terms of plot, character, and story. This reminds me a lot of Daniel Handler’s forthcoming book Why We Broke Up. I received an advanced reader copy and loved the premise of the book. Narrator Min Green fills a box with things and leaves that box at the door of Ed Slaterton’s house. Each item allows Min to tell the story of why her and Ed broke up. I really like the way that "things" inspire story, or they make the story known by the presence that they leave behind. Debbie’s necklace was a lot like that - it had a physical presence in the novel that was almost like a spare character or setting.

After I finished Criss Cross, which won the Newbury Award in 2006, I picked up Perkins' other adolescent novels, All Alone in the Universe and As Easy as Falling off the Face of the Earth. Both reflect the same connection that Criss Cross evokes. Books can be largely about making connection – between people, stories, and experience – and Perkins seems like she knows exactly how to make that happen. 

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