I resent the fact that almost any young adult novel with stylized, first-person teen male POV is automatically judged against John Green. It’s a shallow way of looking at what we should be celebrating: there is YA written for teen males. In my experience these comparisons are usually made not by YA authors, or, in other words, the people actually living and breathing the genre, but by outsiders given a YA novel to review and thus grasping for a comparison against the one young adult author just about everyone on the planet’s heard of, John Green. Okay, maybe the only review I’m thinking of in particular right now comes from the adult nonfiction author A.J. Jacobs’ New York Times review of Andrew Smith’s hilarious and heartbreaking novel, Winger. Referring to the young adult genre of “John Green lit” or “GreenLit,” Jacobs finds that:
Andrew Smith’s latest book, “Winger,” is firmly in GreenLit territory. And while Smith is not going to dethrone Green, this should secure him a seat at the round table. “Winger” is a bit more cartoonish than Green’s novels — both figuratively and literally — but it’s smart, poignant and entertaining.
No, perhaps Andrew Smith will not dethrone Green, and that’s a good thing. Because Winger achieves a level of profound individuality and reckless realism that Green could never match. In Winger there are no Manic Pixie Dream Girls. Teens didn’t say things you swoon over and put on a t-shit. If Winger had a soundtrack it would be “guy rock” with perhaps a little Jack Johnson mixed in, and it would sound nothing like The Fault in Our Stars‘ movie soundtrack. Winger‘s language is course, gritty, foul, and absolutely captivating. When I was reading Winger I could not read fast enough. Never in my life had I ever read 70 pages of a book in half an hour like I did when I was reading Smith’s novel. The pages literally would not flip as fast as I wanted them to. Bagels burnt in the toaster. Coffee went cold because it was never transferred to the carafe. And meanwhile I read the hell out of that novel. I could not help it. I fell absolutely in love with Ryan Dean West.
Let me backtrack here and give you some summary so we’re all on the same page.
Winger (2013) explores the fall semester of Ryan Dean West’s junior year at a rich kids’ boarding school in Oregon. Ryan Dean is the youngest boy in his class at age 14 and also smart enough to sit at the top of said class in academics. This year Ryan Dean is rooming in O-Hall, the dormitory for delinquents, because he stole a teacher’s phone and tried to call his best friend and lady love, Annie. Ryan Dean is also on the rugby team, as are his friends. That fall Ryan Dean navigates the tricky dance of courtship with two separate women, an alarming resident hall director, friction and fighting among his friends old and new, and proving his worth as someone who is more than just “adorable.” He also curses a lot (but not out loud), injures his man-parts, draws cartoons, includes screenplays and imagined dialogue in the narrative, and serves his frenemies his own urine from a Gatorade bottle.
And then something shocking happens that shall go unnamed here lest I spoil anyone’s fun.
And, so, then the blinders come off and Ryan Dean has to grow up yet grieve at the same time.
Everyone should read Winger, especially anyone who is working with youth today as an educator, librarian, or what have you. My dear brother, a former varsity football player turned middle school teacher and varsity high school football coach, will be receiving this novel from me for his birthday.
I am overjoyed that there is a sequel coming out in September.
But let me return to what I was talking about before. We should be ecstatic that fiction for guys is sitting on the same shelf as The Selection, Vampire Diaries, and Sarah Dessen’s novels. Reading is cool, and it can absolutely change your life (I’m proof of that). Joe Scieszka’s Guys Read initiative to promote literacy among young boys and men is a gamechanger that I cannot shut up about. I am so lucky that two men in my life–my father and my brother–are or were English teachers. The reading gap is real, and really alarming, and young boys and men need to see positive male role models promoting literacy. So let’s celebrate Andrew Smith, whose novels “keep YA weird,” even if “weird” for Winger readers means you find that a genre you once found weird–the foul mouthed, sex-obsessed, somewhat-of-a-jock yet ultimately endearing teen male POV–is now oddly appealing.
By far the best book I’ve read this year. Five stars and beyond.
Discussion Questions for Winger
- Why does Ryan Dean say he doesn’t curse, but then spew profanity in his written account of his life?
- How does Ryan Dean change over the course of the fall semester? How does he stay the same?
- Is the tragedy at the end foreshadowed at all? What quotes or incidents can you point to that hinted at a darker future for the characters?