by Crystal Allen
Balzer+Bray (imprint HarperCollins), 2011.
283 pages, hardcover
Pulled from my Concenter List.
Thirteen-year-old Lamar Washington is the maddest, baddest, most spectacular bowler at Striker’s Bowling Paradise. But while Lamar’s a whiz at rolling strikes, he always strikes out with girls. And his brother, Xavier the Basketball Savior, is no help. Xavier earns trophy after trophy on the basketball court and soaks up Dad’s attention, leaving no room for Lamar’s problems.
Until bad boy Billy Jenks convinces Lamar that hustling at the alley will help him win his dream girl, plus earn him enough money to buy an expensive pro ball and impress celebrity bowler Bubba Sanders. But when Billy’s scheme goes awry, Lamar ends up ruining his brother’s shot at college and every relationship in his life. Can Lamar figure out how to mend his broken ties, no matter what the cost?
From debut author Crystal Allen comes an unforgettable story of one boy’s struggle to win his family’s respect and get the girl of his dreams while playing the sport he loves. ~publisher’s comments.
Crystal Allen’s How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy drew me in from the very first pages where Lamar and his best friend Sergio are talking on the phone; the ribbing between the two, the obvious affection and juvenile flavoring. “Scared to face you? First, if I had your face, I’d sue my parents” (2), Lamar tells his friend. Lamar is cocksure and his wit and strut is equal parts painful and hilarious. He’s 13.
The publisher’s comments are spot on, but for two important plot points. One: the friendship/brotherhood of Sergio. “Sergio’s my boy. We’ve been tighter than the lid on a new jar of pickles since second grade” (2).Their friendship is one of the best parts of the book. Crystal Allen establishes it quickly, steeping it in history and humor. The entrance of girls on the scene shakes things up, and each make poor decisions that create a real strain. You really like these two together. They are brothers and it is wrenching to watch their relationship suffer. In a book about relationships (family, friends, community), Sergio occupies the part of the story that will truly interest any reader with a best friend whose closer than a sibling.
The Second thing to know is that Lamar has recently lost his mother to illness. “She didn’t tell us she was sick until it became obvious. […] Mom died of cancer last year” (8-9). The grieving isn’t as pervasive as in Alan Silberberg’s Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze, but it is present and very moving. She was the one who kept the peace between Lamar and his older brother Xavier. And she always supported Lamar, believed in him. In her absence tension is created, some of the fall-out obvious while some wait to erupt; but Lamar could have used his mother, her interest and support, her conversation and advice about the fairer sex.
I adore Lamar’s father. He isn’t perfect, but he is determined to be present and important in the shaping of his sons. He and Lamar do not have what one would call the best relationship, there is a gap neither seem to know how to close, but it is evident that Mr. Isaac Washington loves his son. Things come to a head and this moment in the book is gorgeously done, honoring its impetus and finding a solution after that is true and hopeful.
As it is, Lamar is fairly alone in negotiating his world, at least he feels this way. Yes, there are the motherly in the community who check on him. And Sergio, who is more popular with the ladies, tries to help out in that regard, and his warnings to stay away from Billy isn’t bad advice either. Lamar does alright though. He is a good boy and that helps. But he is appropriately 13 and his awkwardness makes for good comedy. Allen carries off Lamar’s arrogance and reticence perfectly. And her comedic timing is flawless. If you like a read that is laugh-out-loud and heartwarming, this is your read.
How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy deals in relationships, what creates them and makes them stick (blood, common interests). It is also about change. Lamar is known as a prankster from way back (like yesterday), but now that he is “romantically” inclined towards girls he wants them to take him seriously.
“I’ve asked eight girls to be mine, but they all thought I was joking or had some prank waiting on’em. Maybe I did take things a bit too far a few weeks ago when I asked four different girls to be mind on the same day. I figured one would say yes. Nobody told me girls talk to each other about stuff like that. When the final bell rang, I found out they do talk, and boy it got ugly.” (4)
After he plays the faux pas off as a joke, no girl would take him seriously after. He can’t let this get him down. “I’m ready to hook up with somebody, and that’s no joke. And when I find her, I’ll handle my business, put these luscious lips of love on her—and she’ll know she just got hooked up to the L-Train” (5).
Then Makeda Phillips walks in. Of course, Lamar he doesn’t know it’s her, because she looks different. For one, she wears bangs to hide the forehead people used to tease her about—the “fivehead” Lamar used to torment her about. Lamar isn’t the only one who would like to be known for something else.
The desire for second chances abound, as well as the desire to work past the things that might hold a body back, sink them in despair, or keep them flipping burgers at a local joint. Whether it is appearance, asthma, algebra, bad pranks, bad decisions, or bad reputations, Allen renders determined characters who buoy her book and bring it to home with a sense of hope and optimism. And they do it in a believable way—no happy ending here without some tough labor and introspection first. This is a novel with a work ethic that older generations will appreciate and many younger will find as a novelty—and cling to it.
Lamar is the first person narrator, and while this (and conversational styling) seems to be the narrative rage in juvenile literature, as a device it is completely organic to How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy. Lamar will be the sweetest and funniest narrator you’ve had the pleasure to read this year.*
The title is long, but perfectly suited. The writing is good, really good. The delivery is fresh and well-played. Allen accomplishes a lot in 283 pages, while maintaining a pace that will propel a young reader disinterested in dramatics (as Lamar is just as disinterested). Humor balances the poignancy and Lamar’s aplomb balances the potential tragedies, creating a highly accessible and enjoyable novel for middle-schoolers and up.
I think this would be a fantastic read-aloud in middle-school. (Do they do that in middle school?) Looking for a book for a boy—this is a fail-safe gift to reader and non-. I highly recommend this read to everyone. If you are or ever have been adolescent, have a parent, a sibling, a best friend, a crush (for whom you tried to rhyme his or her impossible name into a poem). If you like to bowl or play basketball or soccer or have asthma. If you long to see protagonists who are not white.
How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy is Crystal Allen’s debut. I am truly excited to see what she has for us next. This is a novel to read, and Allen is an author to look out for.
* I tend to not find teenagers sweet or endearing, usually they are obnoxious and their self-absorption grating; but Lamar is just so damn likable.
note: you actually can get a bowling scholarship to go to University.
During the read I thought of: Alan Silberberg’s Milo, Tom Angleberger’s Origami Yoda, Susan Patron’s Lucky books, and Lauren Child’s Clarice Bean books, but I’m sure anyone Jon Scieszka collected in his Guy’s Read Funny Business collection would rate as well.
Crystal Allen’s website