Review of the Day: Eb & Flow by Kelly J. Baptist
Here’s what children’s librarians want from contemporary children’s book authors today (which is why it’s so hard to give us what we want): We want contemporary novels about kids from a wide range of experiences. BUT we also want the kids in these books to be from a wide range of economic backgrounds as wel (tons of books about mid or upper income kids are not helpful, obviously). BUT we don’t want books from kids from working class or disadvantaged backgrounds to be stereotyped in the books that we receive. BUT we also don’t like it when books of working class families do the whole this-kid-is-special trope. We want our children’s books to be honest but not to slot into preexisting assumptions. So do you see now how difficult it is to write a chapter book for kids today? Get too wrapped up in expectations and suddenly it becomes just as much about what you can’t do as what you can. This is why we’re so grateful for authors like Kelly J. Baptist. When she writes, she cuts out the background noise and concentrates solely on great characters, plotting, and just general storytelling. And with her book Eb & Flow (which I’m a little embarrassed to confess is my first Baptist book I’ve read to date) you get all that complexity, all that nuance, and also some dang good writing to boot. A book that had me laughing and biting my nails in turn. Hard to think of any other title to compare to this.
“I don’t even hit girls.” But here we are. And somehow, Eb got hit by Flow. You have two kids, caught on camera even, having gotten into all kinds of violence at school. And for what? Flow says Eb messed up his shoes, the shoes his dad got him special before he was sent overseas, on purpose. Eb? She knows that Eb called her a nasty word when she accidentally tripped over his stupid shoes. When he did, she scratched, and the whole thing got blown out of proportion. Now the two of them are suspended, and they both have to watch as their friends and family start telling telling tales. Are the rumors they hear about one another justified? What’s going to happen when they both have to go back to school? And what’s the real story of what happened between the two of them?
To be honest, after I read this book, two books immediately came to mind, which were also published in 2023. The first was Not an Easy Win by Chrystal D. Giles. Like this book, that one begins with a kid getting suspended for school for a fight. Now, in that book the hero joins up with the local community center and becomes incredibly interested in chess. What makes Eb & Flow so interesting is that during their weeklong suspension, neither Eb nor Flow really come up with any new skills or passions. They don’t randomly run into one another and hit on an unexpected friendship. Instead, the two really burrow into their already existing roles. Flow loves to swim and his manages to get away with a little of that on the sly. Meanwhile Eb is very focused on her own family and that connection and love solidifies a bit during her time away from school. The other book that came to mind as I read this was Hands by Torrey Maldonado. That’s a book where a kid has to seriously consider whether or not violence is the answer to his problems in life. But again, that’s not really where Eb & Flow’s head is at. There is violence in this story but the central conflict isn’t on whether or not fighting is the answer but instead on something a lot more basic: How can you keep yourself out of a fight? How do you fight your own instincts when everything inside of yourself is screaming for justice and justification? And to her credit, Baptist fails to hand you any of the usual easy answers.
Split between two narratives, Baptist manages the trick of never confusing the reader as to who is speaking at any given time. Even if you misread one section or another (where each is clearly labeled “Eb” or “Flow”) the tone and delivery is enough to set you right immediately. Now I came into this book with a set of my own presumptions. If you work with children’s books and read enough of them, you get used to certain tropes. So here I was, reading this book, convinced that in the course of the story Eb and Flow would be forced to interact in some way, and would discover that they had more in common than they thought. Then some inciting incident would occur a little later and the two would band together, shocking the world with their friendship. I mean, admit it. You’ve read that kind of story before. You wouldn’t blink so much as an eye if that plot were to show up here. That was, in fact, my expectation coming into this book, but the more pages I read, the clearer it became to me that I literally had no idea where Baptist was taking me. The sheer novelty of it was invigorating, and I think a lot of kids will appreciate that uncertainty as well. When you don’t know where you’re going, it’s hard to consider that you’re lost.
So admittedly Baptist uses a literary trick near the end of the book that may leave you feeling either cheated or relieved. For a moment, the book seriously looks as it if might aim its two main characters into a conflict beyond resolution. Indeed, for a moment there I was half convinced that I’d accidentally picked up some kind of YA novel, and was mentally preparing myself for catastrophe. So much so, that I was literally on the edge of my seat, flipping the pages as fast as my eyes could scan them. When the twist came, I had the same sensation a person has after waking up from a bad dream. “Wait… which parts of that were real?” Not enough to dowse any fervor I held for this book, that’s for sure.
I know that folks love themselves an ebook, and I understand and acknowledge that love. On a long plane flight, nothing’s better than a book you didn’t have to lug through security. But when it comes to my day-to-day reading, paper books are my own personal preference. “Eb & Flow” is a great example of this. As I read through this story (which, thanks to its verse novel format, goes shockingly swiftly) I became increasingly aware of the number of pages left before the approach of the end of the book. That’s not something I’d necessarily notice with an electronic book, and for a while there I had a hard time determining whether it was something I should be grateful for or not. Ultimately, I liked knowing. Particularly when a climactic moment happened near the end of the story that could potentially upend everything that’s come before. Without knowing how many pages were left, that tension would have been missing entirely.
A lot of books purport to show two sides to a conflict. I cast no aspersions on them when I say that while many of these titles are quite accomplished, there’s a depth and complexity to “Eb & Flow” that defies such easy categorizations. Baptist is an author who doesn’t try to take the easy way out of any book she writes. Here, she doesn’t let either of her protagonists off the hook. They both have terrible habits and behaviors. They both strive to do better, but have a hard time looking themselves in the mirror. It’s no coincidence that the very last chapter in this book is titled “Day One.” Want to have some fun? Watch how Baptist names those chapters. There’s hope and more than a smidgen of cleverness in what she’s doing there. In fact, “hope and cleverness” are two terms that are wildly apropos for this book. Smart to its core, hand it to the reluctant readers that might not balk at its size when they see that it’s verse. A book for all kinds, wrapped in clever packaging.
On shelves now.
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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