I’ve always thought that one phase of life I’d not willingly re-visit is junior high—today’s middle school. Plunging into Jason Reynolds’ middle-grade reader Look Both Ways brought me back there again. His stories about students at Latimer Middle School reminded me that as confusing and frustrating as those years were, there was one saving grace: friendship.
Look Both Ways is subtitled “a tale told in ten blocks,” and each chapter, or story, focuses on a single student, or a few students, heading home from school. There’s a poignant authenticity to their situations—worries about illness, death, parents, bullying, budding romance—but there are friends who can help, or friends to be made, and that might make all the difference.
In the first story, “Marston St.,” it’s Jasmine’s first day walking home from school following a hospital stay, a “full-on crisis” of sickle-cell anemia; this, and her parents’ divorce, are her reality. But there’s also TJ, her best friend “since forever”:
The floor of his locker was littered with empty snack bags that Jasmine had slid through the door vent between classes over the last two days. Trash . . . yes. But Jasmine and TJ called them “friendship flags.” The litter of love. And because Jasmine had been gone for a while, they were basically notes that said I’ve missed you. In Cheeto dust.
As they walk, Jasmine and TJ discuss boogers, but also water bears, the micro-animals they’re learning about in science, as well as TJ’s “old mother,” his “mother mother,” and Ms. Macy, his new mother. (“Jasmine tried to keep all the mothers organized in her head.”) We see that TJ’s small house has been built with “human hands and love and hammers and nails and more love.” Looking back, I was surprised at how much I’d learned about Jasmine and TJ, and how much I’d learned to care about them, in fourteen pages. Moving through the stories at a relaxed pace, I found myself caring just as much for Fatima, Stevie, Pia, Satchmo, Cynthia, and all the characters.
Reynolds gives his middle-schoolers plenty of space to express themselves in one-upmanship, sage advice, journal entries, jokes, secret handshakes, and emergency scenarios. Yet he also crafts moving narratives with an economy of language: the short story writer’s secret weapon of success.
I’m not the target audience for Look Both Ways, of course. It’s written about middle-schoolers for middle-schoolers (and comes with a reading guide at the back). The book aims to connect to its audience without pandering to them. It doesn’t sidestep or sugarcoat the lives of young people, but it’s also uplifting, fun, and funny. Fittingly, Reynolds’ book received a Coretta Scott King Award Author Honor Book and was a National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature in 2019. I may not have been the typical reader (and I still don’t want to re-live junior high), but I’m very glad I read Look Both Ways.
What an ideal book for middle schools students to enjoy during the pandemic.