Alan Cole starts out as a coward but doesn’t end as one in this harrowing but inspiring debut.
White seventh-grader Alan’s home life has taught him that it’s best to stay out of the way. He conceals his crush on Connor Garcia. He doesn’t want friends but eats lunch at the Unstable Table with Madison Truman, who’s bullied about his weight, and Zack Kimble, who cheerfully lives by his own rules. He tries to avoid abuse from his father and violence from his brother Nathan. His mother is a largely passive figure, though she does shed some (unsatisfying) light on the source of their familial trauma. Nathan, who is both sympathetic and frightening as a victim and perpetrator of abuse, wants to crush his brother once and for all in an ongoing contest Nathan calls Cole vs. Cole. As the brothers struggle through their list of tasks for this particularly trying game of CvC—from getting kissed to standing up to their father—Alan realizes his own potential for strength, the value of friendship, and the warped reasoning behind his father’s rage. Alan’s burgeoning gay identity is only a small part of his larger angst, and his slow but steady growth from cowed endurance to self-assured advocacy makes for a rewarding, if at times difficult, read. The intensity of the family relationships is so effectively rendered that this book has the potential to appeal to older teens as well as a middle school audience.
The potential horrors of white, middle-class, suburban public school are well-documented and creatively managed here, though readers could easily come away either contented or depressed. (Fiction. 11-16)