Review of the Day: Simon Sort of Says by Erin Bow
To start us off here, put yourself in my shoes. I’m on a plane headed overseas and I’m going to have lots of time on my hands. I review books for kids, yes, but I also write books for kids and I figured that this copious plane time would be ideal for tightening up this middle grade novel I’ve been working on. But, this being a plane, there are large swaths of time where a person isn’t allowed to keep their laptops open, so I’ve brought along this book Simon Sort of Says by Erin Bow to read during the whole take-off proceedings. It was recommended to me by another librarian/author I trust, so I figure it’ll provide some light distraction until I’m able to get back to my own novel. I think you see where this is going. Reader, I devoured this book, practically in one sitting. My plans for working on my own book? Gone! Not least because I realized a mere 10 pages into this book that it was funnier than anything I could hope to conjure out of my own poor, decrepit, jet-lagged little cranium. That’s sort of the ideal way to read, Simon Sort of Says, by the way. I almost fear telling you too much about it, in case you don’t come to it with the same clean slate that I had. The fact of the matter is that Erin Bow has created a masterpiece of tone with this book. Combining a legitimately horrifying situation with humor, heart, and the occasional Jesus squirrel, this is both the funniest book you’ll read this year, and the best-written. Would that I were joking about that. In three words: I am not.
The story that Simon is going to tell the kids in his new school is that he and his family were forced to leave their home due to an incident at his dad’s church involving alpacas. Not entirely true but not entirely false either. And the great thing is, they’ll never be able to double check it because Simon and his parents are moving to the National Quiet Zone. That means no internet (or microwaves for some reason) because the scientists there are searching for signs of life in space. The internet? It interferes. But the more Simon tries to suppress the real reason he and his family have moved, the more dire it may become to tell the truth to his new friends.
So I’m just going to spoil the premise of this book. It’s not giving anything away, since it’s literally in the book’s description, but if you’re anything like me and you prefer to read a book without knowing anything about it, skip this paragraph. We good? Excellent. As I wanted to mention before, the whole premise of this book is that Simon is the sole survivor of a particularly brutal mass school shooting. So much so that as the only kid to survive, his name is synonymous with the event. The job of Erin Bow, then, is to figure out how precisely to introduce this fact. Now, sometimes if I’m really enjoying a book, I’ll write little notes to myself about it along the way. I was flipping back through this book just now and I saw that I’d written this sentence: “All right, students. Turn to page 34 to see a glorious example of how an author drops bread crumbs from chapter to chapter.” I don’t remember writing that, but I was intrigued enough to go to page 34 to see if I could figure out what I meant. Turns out, it was a section where a single off-handed statement intrigues the reader as quickly as it moves on. Agate, new friend of our hero, tends not to be around at lunch because she’s autistic and prefers to go to the school’s “Wellness Room”. Simons says, “It’s dim and cozy which is nice but it also has only one door, which isn’t.” Mind you, there’s a flipside to this kind of foreshadowing. An author has to be very careful with the number of hints and clues they drop before the reader starts to get tired of trying to follow along. Pace is key here, and that author had better play fair or they’ll start losing the readership. In the case of this book, the reveal came about 113 pages, or almost halfway, into the book. That might seem a bit later than in some titles, but in this particular case I thought that it worked.
How the heck is this a comedy then? Because that’s the twist that makes this particular book stand out from all the other middle grade tragedy-soaked sad fests we see in a given year. Balancing something truly horrific alongside jokes that don’t just land but are honestly good and original (so much so that the person next to me on the airplane may have thought I had some kind of congestion issue, I was snorting so frequently)? I mean, you can’t teach that. The trick lies in tone policing. You have to be able to turn on a dime, when called upon to do so, and deliver the right emotion or sentiment at the right time. The funny parts can’t touch the school shooting stuff. The school shooting stuff should in no way get anywhere near the humor. Yet both have to exist in the same book. It reminded me a bit of Dadaism’s response to WWI. When the world offers you horror that trips into absurdism, how do you NOT make a joke?
On that note, I’m going to do that thing where I pluck individual sentences that really liked in the book out of their contexts and make them fend for themselves. These were some of my favorite funny lines:
“I have enough self-consciousness to fuel the robot uprising.”
“The principal’s name is Ms. Snodgrass, and she looks like she’s spent her whole life trying to overcome being called Ms. Snodgrass … On her face she has that look owls always have, like she’s bored but barely suppressing suspicion and rage.”
On having an expensive chair in his room: “My mom bought it for the year I was homeschooled. She said I wasn’t going to be one of those people with widows’ humps who had to have their spines broken so they can lay flat in a coffin.”
On how schools cram in history at the end of the year: “I went to the bathroom during history class and I missed the Vietnam War.”
“Plus, Mom clearly loves coffee more than me.”
“Absolutely true … I would sell you to the fairies for magic coffee beans.”
And, of course, the line I keep quoting to people all the time about the squirrel that ate the consecrated host at Simon’s dad’s church: “That squirrel is now thirty percent Jesus by volume . . . It’s our new god.”
I also detected at least one Suzy Eddie Izzard joke in this book, which I appreciated, as well as a touch of Arrested Development. Maybe I’m wrong, but it sure felt that way anyway.
Craft talk time. Folks like to talk about the first sentence of a given book. They’ll say that it, or the first page, is the make or break portion of any novel. Now how many people say as many sweet things about the final line of the first chapter? Too few, sez I. That may have been the moment I first fell in love with Simon Sort of Says actually. I read through that first chapter and then reached its last sentence: “Anyway, that’s what I tell people.” It’s just six little words but it has the ability to throw everything said before that moment into complete and utter chaos and confusion. Suddenly you have doubts where you didn’t have doubts before (and you’ve only just MET this narrator!). It’s a gutsy little move for a children’s book, and I have nothing but admiration for it. Is Simon an unreliable narrator? Maybe that’s something for child readers to discuss.
And if we’re going to talk craft seriously, let’s talk about character development. The book is written in the first person from Simon’s point of view. That’s great for getting into your main character’s head, but it sets up some natural roadblocks to diving quite as deeply into the heads of his friends and family. Happily, Bow knows how to show rather than tell. First off, there’s Agate. She on the autism spectrum and I was grateful that Bow had the wherewithal to have a fat character where that’s mentioned on occasion, but just so you understand that it’s just part of who she is and not making some kind of a point. Agate is the first friend Simon makes and Bow does a good job of not making her into some kind of magic pixie dream friend, solely there to support our hero. Agate has her own life, her own plans, and she can be darned annoying sometimes. I like that. Bow has a tougher row to hoe with Simon’s other friend Kevin. Kevin’s just a nice dude, but nice dudes can be a little harder to flesh out. Thank goodness for terrible moms then! Or, if not terrible, then at least really really thoughtless moms. It helps to define a guy. Finally, in terms of antagonists, to my infinite relief this book was pretty much bully free. I know that bullies exist, but I also know that they’re also de facto easy villains for lazy authors. It’s easy to make a bully a villain. It doesn’t require much skill in the writing department. Here, there’s a single news reporter who doesn’t even get much time on the page, so we can acknowledge her awfulness without having to see it firsthand. I am down for that.
My co-workers at the library like this book. Of course they do. But they have questions, and I find that when considering books for kids it is generally a very good idea to hear all sides on them. For most of my fellow library workers, the balance between the seriousness of surviving a school shooting alongside the humor of the narration mostly worked, but there were exceptions. For example, at one point Simon says of the goats of Agate, “… it’s making a noise like it’s getting murdered finds getting murdered kind of annoying.” Some folks wondered, not ridiculously, if a kid who was the sole survivor of a school shooting would toss out the term “murdered” quite as cavalierly as Simon has here. It’s a fair point. For other folks, they felt that the ending didn’t work for them. Either they thought it wrapped up far too quickly, or they thought that Simon suddenly had solved his problems in a potentially unhealthy way. Yet even for those folks who had issues with the ending, they loved the book overall. It’s interesting. I rarely see people discuss issues they’ve had with a piece of literature and then throw their weight wholeheartedly behind it anyway. It’s a testament to Bow’s writing. A testament to the book itself.
I’m a librarian by training, so when I read a book I really enjoy I immediately want to pair it with something similar. In this case, it isn’t an intuitive pairing, but one I’d like to make just the same. If you, or a kid you know, hasn’t read, Jennifer Chan Is Not Alone by Tae Keller, this would make an ideal companion novel to Simon Sort of Says. In both cases you’ve an unreliable narrator. A tragedy. Aliens. Science fiction (or is the book realistic fiction?). They’re made for one another.
I read a great deal of middle grade fiction in a given year. Much of it? Perfectly decent and forgettable. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but it does mean that if we want to give our children books that are going to stick in their brains for years and years, long into adulthood, we need to find those stories that grab them and grab them hard. As more and more people read this book they create more and more discussions. I’ll freely admit that not everybody is on board with this title, and that okay. A range of opinions is what make a healthy literary ecosystem. This is for the kid who likes their humor to be complicated, their writing to be scintillating, and to never, ever, know what an author is going to do next. One and all, please be so good as to meet the most memorable book of the year.
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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