Finley loves playing basketball, and he’s pretty good at it because when he practices and plays, he is in it 100%. There’s no deviating from focus for him. He’s best friends with Erin, who, too, loves basketball. And though they aren’t officially “a couple,” they do like to kiss and spend time together and maybe it’s true that they’ll end up getting married down the road because they do care about each other that much. Except during basketball season, when Finley tells Erin they cannot be together because his focus can only be in that one place.
Things change though the day that Finley’s coach shows up at his door and tells him they need to talk. There’s going to be a new kid at school, Russell, and coach believes Finley should help her adjust to the new school. Russell — who prefers to be called Boy21 — was a top recruit for college basketball teams, but when his parents died tragically, his life was shaken. He’s been taken out of his home and sent to live with his grandparents in this neighborhood. Coach knows Finley would be the right person to help Boy21 adjust.
This isn’t a story about Boy21 adjusting to the new neighborhood, though. It’s a story about Finley learning what happened to himself.
Quick won my heart with his novel Sorta Like a Rockstar and it took only two chapters to realize I was going to be reduced to a mess by the end of Boy21, too. From the start, we get to know Finley and we realize he is a good kid. He’s honest, dedicated, and despite being treated terribly at school, he soldiers on with an optimism and determination that’s admirable. See, Finley is one of the few white kids at his school, and he’s earned nicknames because of this. Bellmont, his town, is home to the Irish mob, racial fights, drugs, and violence. As readers, we know this right away, and when we meet Finley, we see a kid defying his own situation. It’s the moment when his coach asks him to help support Boy21, who has been through tragedy personally, we start to see that things aren’t going to be any easier for Finley.
Boy21 is weird, at least in Finley’s opinion. He’s obsessed with the sky and he believes his parents will return to him in a space ship some day. He talks about the constellations as though they’re personal friends. But more than that, Boy21 doesn’t want to play basketball. No matter how hard Finley tries to coax him into it, knowing he’s a good player, he won’t do it.
Until the time he does.
When Finley realizes that Boy21’s performance means he might lose out on playing time, he’s understandably upset, but because he’s such a good kid, he also realizes this is an asset to the team. And being a team player, he’s surprisingly okay with it, too. It’s just when something terrible happens that things suddenly change, and Finley believes he’s made a mistake in funneling so much of himself into basketball.
Boy21 is the kind of book I have to stop talking plot at about this point because anything after this is spoiler. It’s a powerful look at race and rivalry from here on out, and not necessarily as you’d expect. As a reader, I’ve been so inside Finley’s head, I’ve grown to love and believe him as a character, and I have internalized what everyone’s said to him about being a good kid. He is a good kid. But the thing is, so much of that talk is in place because of what happened to him when he was younger. He’s living in a place where he really has no future, and it’s not at all by his own choice. When Finley has this ah ha moment, it’s painful not only for him but for everyone around him. Luckily, he’s paid his dues, and he has an amazing support network — including Boy21 and his off-beat star gazing obsession — to help.
Aside from impeccably drawn characters and a setting that’s going to test them all, this book features a thread through it that really hit me. One of the boys on the basketball team escapes from his life by reading, and others on the team bother him about it. During one of these teasing sessions, a book is torn from his hands, and it’s Harry Potter. The teasing becomes relentless, but it actually motivates Finley to read the book. The ways the story of Harry and Hogwarts weave into the plot were smart and savvy readers will appreciate them. It was the last reference to Harry Potter from Finley, though, that reduced me to a sobbing mess at the end of the book. It’s pitch perfect and captures the entire essence of Finley and why he’s such a damn good character.
Boy21 is a book that will appeal to fans of Quick’s first YA novel, as it will appeal to readers who
love a story about a good character in a rough environment. It’s a unique exploration of racial tensions, and it’ll hit home with readers who have ever felt like an outsider, regardless of their background. Quick is smart and subtle in offering us a white kid dealing with what so many could associate with urban problems and a black kid challenged with what has become almost a suburban stereotype. It’s an emotional read, and not one that’s necessarily easy, but it’s one that’ll leave a lasting impression. Much as I love a character I can hate, Quick offers me characters I can’t help but want to reach out to and tell them how good they are. No doubt this one will appeal to boys, too. The voices are authentic and relatable.
This book will be available for purchase March 1, but you can win a copy here starting tomorrow (when you’ll get to read one of my favorite Twitterviews to date!)
Review copy received from the publisher months ago. I put it off though because of how much I loved Sorta Like a Rockstar and didn’t know how it could be followed up. Well, this is how. Boy21 is available March 1 — put it on your radar now.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).