As Brave As You
Atheneum/Simon & Schuster, 2016 410 pgs
Genie is a very thoughtful and sensitive eleven-year-old boy. His head burns with questions and his heart burns with emotions. He and his older brother Ernie are sent to rural Virginia to stay with his parental grandparents, who he doesn't really know, while his parents travel to Jamaica to try to work out their marriage. Life in Virginia is as different from Brooklyn as you can get. To further complicate matters, Genie discovers that Grandpa is blind, a fact that no one chose to reveal beforehand. Ernie, who is about to turn 14 and is very cool and tough, takes to the new surroundings as he strikes up a friendship/romance with a neighboring girl. Genie spends time connecting with his Grandfather, discovering that even adults have guilty feelings, get scared, and sometimes don't have all the answers. The boys spend their days doing chores for the first time, such as helping Grandma grow peas and sell them at a local farmer's market, running around exploring the woods, and forging new relationships. As Ernie's birthday approaches, Grandpa is determined to participate in the local coming-of-age tradition involving learning to shoot a gun, which yields predictably disastrous results, bringing many old feelings and hurts to the surface in the adults around Genie that he doesn't fully understand. By book's end many feelings are processed, old hurts forgiven, and relationships mended. Genie and Ernie return to Brooklyn older, wiser, and richer for their summer in the country.
This book is a departure for Reynolds, who tends to write urban fiction. A little less intense than his other work and infused with humor, As Brave As You still manages to pack a lot of content within its pages. Themes explored by Reynolds include connecting to your past, the benefit of young people having chores, the importance of honesty, owning up to your mistakes, letting go of guilt, the definition of what manhood means, the dangers of guns, what defines being "cool", the importance of family, and what it means to be brave. Both Genie and Grandpa have regrets that they must atone for. As the summer goes by and they venture together out into the night, Genie helping Grandpa to face his fears of the outdoors, they both learn to let go of their mistakes and try to put them right. Every character experiences growth throughout this novel, which is more character driven than plot intensive. I applaud Reynolds in the way he manages to capture Genie's voice and keep it consistent throughout the book. I feel like this is Reynolds's greatest gift as an author. My only complaint is that the book is a little long. That said, it is so finely written I wouldn't want anything edited out. I also feel that the cover doesn't do it any favors. I've had this book in my library since it's release in May and it hasn't been circulating. I don't know if its because of the cover, the length, or if rural Virginia doesn't appeal to New Jersey youth. At any rate, this is a fine piece of middle grade fiction that kids would enjoy and befit from spending time with if they gave it a chance.