In Paul’s middle-grade debut, a crew of tough-talking 12-year-olds fake their way through their final summer before adolescence.Coming out of the sixth grade, Sammy Johns is confident in what he knows—his neighborhood, its streets and bike trails, its pizzerias and arcades. He knows his friends and where he stands with them, how to curse and trash-talk, how to take a joke. He knows his family, enough to know he wants to be around them as little as possible. Yet he’s only one summer away from middle school and all the unknowns that accompany it. How will he fit in? Will his friends stick together? And will he learn the truth about all this sex stuff that he and his peers are constantly talking about? Caught between childhood and the teenage wasteland on the other side of August, Sammy throws himself into a summer of biking, egging and acting his age while trying to ignore the panic in his chest. It’s all going according to plan until girls and high schoolers start popping up in the park, forcing Sammy and his three best friends to confront the complexities of young adulthood. Paul is hardly reinventing the genre: The characters are recognizable, their arcs predictable, and the expected familial melodrama that lurks in the background gives this fairly shallow adventure a few inches of depth. Though nothing in the plot feels contrived, there are several points in the action, particularly in the final scenes, when one can’t help but wish the author had been more daring; on the whole, however, the novel succeeds. Sammy and company win the reader over with a sincerity that only kids possess. While Paul sometimes runs the risk of overexplaining Sammy’s emotional state, most of the story is meted out in the rough, simple language that makes 12-year-old boys both charming and frightening. Despite its freshman flaws, the novel reveals Paul to be a natural writer with a knack for character, plot and pacing, which bodes well for his future literary endeavors.
An imperfect novel by a new talent that should please middle-grade readers.