Review of the Day: Wink by Rob Harrell
By Rob Harrell
Dial Books for Young Readers (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
On shelves now
They say, write what you know. And if what you know is how to lie on a steel table, your head screwed into place, a laser pointed at your face, that might be a good place to start. We live in dark times. How dark are they? SO dark that a book about a kid with a potentially deadly eye cancer is the bit of lighthearted levity we all need and crave. And don’t get me wrong. Wink is probably one of the funniest middle grades of 2020, thanks in large part to the fact that its hero (Ross) has a cancer that its author (Rob) actually had and lived through. So kick back, relax, and enjoy the world through the eye of a kid that goes the zero to hero route via some of the weirdest methods imaginable.
You find out you have an incredibly rare eye cancer. You’re a kid. What next? If you’re Ross Maloy, you have no friggin’ idea. You do know that when you tell your two best friends, one of them ditches you right there and then. You know that thanks to your newly immunocompromised body, now you have to wear a gigantic cowboy hat in school (the dream of every middle school student, har har). And you know that somebody is sending around some seriously messed up, downright nasty cartoons of you to everyone. But Ross has other things going for him. He’s discovering music. He’s finding out the school bully might have another side to him. And he’s coming to terms with the fact that if you want to survive something, do it your way. Who knows? You may yet master that friggin’ F chord yet.
To say that I’ve been waiting for the latest Rob Harrell book isn’t strictly accurate, but it’s not far off the mark. I happen to be a gargantuan fan of his graphic novel Monster on the Hill (a book that lingers in obscurity only because it came out in 2013, long before the current in explosion in children’s comics we’re seeing today). Oddly, I never put two and two together that the man behind that book was also responsible for that Life of Zarf series that followed in the intervening years. So when I saw his name on the top of Wink as far as I knew the man had been holed up in a cave somewhere for all this time. The interesting thing is that while I would certainly put this into the category of illustrated novel, it is not a comic or graphic novel. There are comic elements, like a longstanding gag of Rob’s Batpig series (nerd that I am, I wondered if this was a weird homage to Spider-Pig in any way). But I like the interstitial art that peppers the pages. It’ll be good for the kids making a crossover from comics to novels. Like I always figure, there’s nothing wrong with books with pictures. They just have to serve the story the right way.
Funny books are my first and last literary love. They are also incredibly hard to pull off. If your book is just fluff from page one onward, god help your soul. A person can only take so much before the sugar high crash (so to speak). But if you try to add a bit of levity to a serious subject, you run the extreme risk of driving the entire enterprise off the rails, coming across as flippant when you’re trying for “urbane”. Now here is one of those cases where I really feel that Harrell’s firsthand knowledge of his subject matter is giving him the home court advantage. Rob’s gotta be funny but also low-level (and sometimes high-level) freaked out about his current situation. So you’ve gotta be the sort of author that can include a line like, “I can shoot laser beams out of my butt,” at the top of a page and then “I feel like if I give this thing as little energy as I can, it’ll just … fade away,” at the bottom without giving the reader whiplash.
By the way, I wanna give some serious props to the supporting cast in this book. Now I know we all have our favorites. There’s probably already a fan club out there for Frank the technician, and Jimmy the bully has his moments, but I’m Team Abby all the way. She’s the kind of character who looks like you’ve seen her a million times before, and then you realize that there’s a bit more depth than at first glance. Initially, Abby is “the supportive friend” to Ross. She has almost no personality because insofar as the book seems to be concerned, she’s just there to provide the hero a sympathetic ear. So it was with great relief that I found a part in the middle of the book where Abby just explodes at Ross for not caring one jot about her own problems. It’s one of the most realistic fights between friends I’ve seen in a title for kids. On the one hand you’ve got a guy who genuinely has major problems. On the other, Abby, as she points out, bends over backwards for him and he doesn’t even thank her for it. She’s got her own life, and we’re just getting a tiny glimpse of it because we’re stuck in Ross’s head.
A friend of mine in college had her own rare form of cancer. One night she explained, in a no-nonsense way, that one of the problems with having cancer is that people come up to you, trying to understand, but their method is to talk about their own medical problems or the medical problems of people they’ve known. Ross has that exact moment early in the book when recounting stuff kids have said to him. “Another kid, an eighth grader named Billy Herrold, just came up and nodded – then told me his uncle died of cancer.” It’s this line, walking it right between the serious and the funny, where Harrell excels. It’s his gift. The kind of thing that gets the kids that only want funny, reading serious books and kids that only like serious books, getting a jolt of humor into their day. It has a lot of elements we’ve seen in other MG novels (the bully you befriend, the talent show, the nice person with a dark evil side) but the key is how they’re rendered and put together. Wink is both like and unlike so many books, but it is without a doubt an original. It sticks with you long after the pages close. Smart. Funny. Strange. The ultimate triumvirate.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Lots of ’em! Loads!
Filed under: Best Books, Best Books of 2020, Reviews, Reviews 2020
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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