craft review by Kristi Wright
A GOOD KIND OF TROUBLE by Lisa Moore Ramée follows “allergic to trouble” Shayla as she navigates seventh grade, including her evolving friendships, her first crush, track and field, and her burgeoning awareness of what it means to be Black in America. After she experiences her first Black Lives Matter protest, she brings her growing activism to junior high, which causes her all sorts of trouble. Only she can decide if it’s worth it.
This novel perfectly blends authentic junior high problems with real world issues. As Angie Thomas says in her blurb, it’s “full of heart and truth.” From a craft perspective, Ramée sets the bar high for creating a junior high world that is not just believable, but 100% real. There was never a moment when I didn’t believe that Shayla and her friends existed, that they had families, and that they currently were seventh graders at Emerson Junior High in West LA. How does Ramée do that? How does she make these characters and this world come alive? Here are some techniques she uses to great effect.
Shayla’s Airtight Point of View
Not once do we ever lose Shayla’s POV. The novel is written in first person. Ramée commits to Shayla’s voice and she never wavers. Shayla’s primary focus at the beginning of the novel is her friends and the opinions of her peers, which is pretty much universally the case when it comes to kids her age. (See this great post about middle schoolers by middle school teacher Jennifer Gonzalez. She claims that middle school students “care more about the opinions of their peers than pretty much anything else.”)
Shayla has typical, yet quite complicated, junior high relationship moments, such as that moment when she likes a boy and he likes her best friend. Ramée expresses these moments via a combination of Shayla’s interiority and dialogue. We get to see her thought process as she narrates.
I frown. I don’t want one of my friends liking the same boy I like. Why can’t I have dibs on a guy I like, whether he likes me or not? But I’m not sure what a friendship manual would say about that. Maybe Julia is right. A good friend wouldn’t stand in her friend’s way. “I shouldn’t have acted so weird,” I finally say. “Guess it’s not your fault you’re scorching.” (234)
Or that moment when Shayla tries out for track, and one of her best friends teases her about a boy who likes her, even though she knows that Shayla doesn’t like him back. It’s such a typical adolescent friend thing to do:
“Is Tyler running track too?” Julia teases.
“You are so not funny. I can’t stand him and you know it.”
“I know. I’m sorry! I was just messing around,” Julia says. (33)
Or that moment when she’s having a slumber party with her two best friends that she’s currently upset with:
I try and pretend everything is okay because I don’t want to ruin our slumber party. Julia takes a few selfies of all of us and I fake-smile. Maybe this is how Isabella feels a lot of the time. Not letting herself get mad. It’s not a good feeling, and I can’t keep all my hurt feelings from bubbling right out. (185)
Through her unwavering commitment to Shayla’s voice, Ramée creates a three-dimensional character that readers can relate to. In Shayla, they can explore their own emotional ups and downs. Her worries are theirs, or at least, they could be.
Shayla’s Age-Appropriate Worries
Shayla’s voice is authentic because mostly she has adolescent worries rather than adult worries. And she has a lot of them!
Shayla is worried about the changing dynamic within her best friend group, a triangle that includes herself, Isabella and Julia. She’s also going from being one of a handful of Black kids in elementary school to a much larger community, which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s a change, which requires her to figure out where she fits within that larger group. She has to navigate an uncomfortable game that’s being played at school, which can be the cause of extreme embarrassment for certain unfortunate kids. She has her first crush, and there are boys crushing on her. Of course, junior high kids (even best friends) in junior high tease each other a lot about crushes, whether real or imagined. Let’s recap: in her junior high world, she has best friend problems, crush problems, identity problems, humiliation/embarrassment problems and even acquaintance problems. Whew… sound familiar? This is why I never want to go back to being twelve! It’s hard! And Ramée nails it.
When Shayla’s adolescent worries and her clear voice work together, they create magic. Here are a few examples.
She’s worried about fitting in and looking good at school:
You have to wear extremely ugly PE clothes that I am positive someone made just to make sure I would look extra bad. Shiny, bright blue shorts are not a good look for me, especially since I had to get a size small on account of me being so skinny. No one wants their shorts falling down. But small shorts are a weird length on me. Too short for baggie basketball, and too long for regular shorts. (13)
She’s worried about changing friendships:
“Why is it so hot?” I click the bottle against my teeth. But that’s not the real question I want to ask. What I want to ask is why Julia is being weird and not hanging with us at break like she’s supposed to.
She’s worried about staying connected with her friends through texting and social media:
What can I do? I hand her [Momma] my phone. So basically my life is over. Momma doesn’t understand at all.
Without my phone, I’m completely cut off from the whole world, and Momma is obviously mad at me. I can’t even enjoy Saturday and Sunday.
After such a lousy weekend, it is no surprise that Monday starts out bad too.
My favorite jeans are still in the dirty-clothes hamper, and all there is for breakfast is banana yogurt. (145-146)
And when she worries about the world around her, her viewpoint is distinct and young in comparison to older characters. While it’s still thoughtful and nuanced, it’s a viewpoint that’s growing and changing rather than one that’s already been formed.
Shayla’s Age-Appropriate Viewpoint in Comparison to Older Characters
Whether her viewpoint is being contrasted with her sister, her parents, or teachers/other adults, Shayla’s viewpoint feels young in comparison. Not foolish, not childish, just young. You can see that she’s learning and evolving. She’s finding her way, discovering how she feels about important subjects, whether it’s how she feels about the Black Lives Matter Movement or something more mundane.
For example, in the beginning of the book, Shayla has been forced to rush to English right after PE. Because she’s busy worrying about how much she might stink, she misses the teacher’s opening question to the class.
I’m so busy worrying that I might stink from PE, and thinking about the potential awfulness of being on the track team, that I don’t even hear Ms. Jacobs ask her question the first time. (20)
And then when the teacher focuses on Emerson and how he was an abolitionist, Shayla feels as if the teacher is speaking directly to her because she’s the only Black student in the class. It causes her increasing embarrassment. While it’s possible that the teacher was directing all of her comments towards Shayla, it’s also very common for adolescents to feel as if everything is being directed at them, that everything is personal. I love how this section can be read two ways, either that the teacher is being inappropriate in singling out the only Black student in her class, or that Shayla is taking everything the teacher says personally, even though the teacher is trying to reach all of the students. It’s brilliantly layered writing! We see how Shayla is interpreting the teacher’s words and we can also see how she could possibly be misinterpreting them.
“You know, Emerson had a strong belief in the power of the individual. He believed all people were important. No matter their race.”
I don’t think I can get any lower in my seat. If Ms. Jacobs was a television, I’d change the channel.
“It was a pretty radical belief for his time. That type of thinking wasn’t popular or well respected by many people back then. Emerson had to be fairly brave to be an abolitionist.”
I would like to abolish this conversation. (24)
In addition to the awkward dynamics of this scene, the teacher’s proper and informative voice contrasts sharply with Shayla’s almost sarcastic discomfort.
There are a number of great interchanges between Shayla and her older sister, Hana, which show Hana as both a bit more sophisticated but also as being not fully matured yet either. She manages to make Shayla question her own motives while still sounding like a typically irritating older sister.
Hana always seems a little bit bored, as if there’s something better going on and if you would just stop bugging her, she could get back to it. I hope by the time I’m a senior in high school, I will have mastered that look.
“I’m probably going to get killed in science,” I say. I know I’m being a little dramatic, but it’s nice having her attention. “I got partnered with Bernard. I told you about him. He’s mean? Today he knocked his whole desk over.”
“I think he didn’t like getting yelled at.”
“It was scary, Hana!”
Hana sighs in that way that means she’s just about done with me. “Bernard’s that big kid, right?”
“Yes! He’s huge!”
“And Black, right?”
“I don’t think he’s scary because he’s Black, Hana. I think he’s scary because he acts mean all the time.”
Hana taps the black armband she’s wearing and smirks at me.” (45)
Later, Hana and Shayla have an important interchange about their differing views on the Black Lives Matter armbands (foreshadowing Shayla’s growth later in the novel). It captures a middle schooler’s desire not to be noticed or embarrassed. Shayla’s at the age where she doesn’t want to stand out from the group.
Hana grips my arm hard. ‘Black Lives Matter is important Shayla.
“I know!” Hana thinks I don’t care about being Black sometimes since I’m not like her, but she’s wrong. “I want people to know we matter too. I just don’t want to wear an armband.” If I started wearing an armband, everyone would ask me about it and make a big deal. And I don’t think it would stop anyone from dying. (87)
Sibling relationships can be hard to write. They are such a complicated combination of love and fierce loyalty, juxtaposed with irritation and derision. Ramée uses the sisters’ age difference to great effect by giving them age-appropriate viewpoints that naturally create and build tension.
There are so many great moments between Shayla and her parents, but this one is especially poignant because it shows her dad nurturing and comforting her–being the adult–in a moment when she’s become more fully aware of how unfair the world can be:
“Look Shayla, life isn’t fair. You’re old enough to understand that. And I don’t mean just for Black folks. Lots of people aren’t treated the way they should be.” Daddy pauses and looks around my room like he’s trying to find what he wants to say hidden somewhere. “It’s just sometimes, it sure seems like Black folks get way too big of a helping of that unfair pie.”
I can feel my eyes filling up with tears. “Everyone hates us,” I whisper.
“No, Shay. That’s not what I’m saying. I know it’s hard. All of this is hard. But don’t start thinking that.”
He spreads his arms as wide as an ocean and I rush right in.
But as he holds me, I can’t stop wondering, just what am I supposed to think? (299-300)
Shayla’s bond with her parents remains strong throughout the book. It’s refreshing to see a family that loves and supports each other. Though they have natural conflict due to their parent-child relationship (such as that moment when Shayla loses her phone privileges), her parents are able to act as wise mentors as she confronts the realities of being Black in America.
Through my study of Ramée’s A GOOD KIND OF TROUBLE as mentor text for creating believable junior high characters, I’ve come away with the following action plan for my own writing:
- Remember that this is a time of great change for kids. Not only are their bodies changing, but their relationships are likely going through massive shifts as well.
- Consider how conflict and stakes might be raised through issues arising in long-term and new friendships, first crushes, and even acquaintances. Kids are still learning how to be kind. They’re going to have missteps. Sometimes even your beloved protagonist is going to hurt her peers’ feelings.
- Don’t forget that characters will interact differently with their peers versus their siblings, parents and school authority figures.
- Be aware that no matter what’s going on in the world around them, adolescents will continue to have an uber focus on their peer relationships. Even if the world is ending, they aren’t going to forget to worry about whether their friends still like them or whether their crush is returning their feelings.
Now it’s your turn. What do you do to turn your middle school characters into living, breathing human beings who jump out of your pages and into your readers’ hearts?
Kristi Wright (co-editor) writes picture books and middle grade novels. Her goal as a writer is to give children a sense of wonder, a hopefulness about humanity, and a belief in their future. She is represented by Kurestin Armada at Root Literary. She is an active volunteer for SCBWI and a 12 X 12 member. Find her at www.kristiwrightauthor.com and on Twitter @KristiWrite.