"review" · concenter · fiction · juvenile lit · recommend · young adult lit

Lamar’s bad prank made good

How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy

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

"review" · comics/graphic novels · juvenile lit · recommend

geeks + grieving = fantastic read

covermiloMilo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze

written and illustrated by Alan Silberberg

Aladdin (Simon & Schuster Children’s), 2010.

(hardback) 275 pages.

Loveable geek Milo Cruikshank finds reasons for frustration at every turn, like people who carve Halloween pumpkins way too soon (the pumpkins just rot and get lopsided) or the fact that the girl of his dreams, Summer, barely acknowledges his existence while next-door neighbor Hilary won’t leave him alone.

The truth is – ever since Milo’s mother died nothing has gone right. Now, instead of the kitchen being full of music, his whole house has been filled with Fog. Nothing’s the same. Not his Dad. Not his sister. And definitely not him. In love with the girl he sneezed on the first day of school and best pals with Marshall, the “One Eyed Jack” of friends, Milo copes with being the new kid (again) as he struggles to survive a school year that is filled with reminders of what his life “used to be.”

Brimming with heart, humor, and ultimately hope, Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze is a powerhouse of a novel that will stay with you well after you’ve turned the last page.~inside cover.

Melissa @ “Book Nut” wrote a really good review of Alan Silberberg’s Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze. Her mention of the book had me curious and requesting it from the Library. The daughter got ahold of it first (doesn’t the cover scream Middle-Grader?). She loved it and put it back in my pile, “This one is really good, mom.”

Despite the serious aspect of a 13 year old trying to keep going after his mother dies, a good portion of the setting is in the comedic (groaning) travails of Junior High (or Middle School for some of you).

That you know Milo is going to be humorous is evident from the first page.

Summer Goodman never knew what hit her. That’s because it was me, and as soon as I collided with her in the hallway—scattering every one of her perfectly indexed index cards—I disappeared into the mob of kids who’d arrived to help realphabetize her life.

I love Summer Goodman but she barely knows I exist, which I’m pretty okay with because when you love someone, they don’t have to do anything—and Summer does nothing, so I think it’s all going to work out great.

A few other things will become more noticeable. The nicely worded sentence. The serious couched in comedy. Feelings of embarrassment for the main character, Milo (who narrates).

In a way, Milo reads like a Steven Spielberg movie from the 80s, narrated by someone like Chunk from Goonies (1985) or DJ from Monster House (2006). Milo is at turns creepy/weird (naively-stalking boy) and pitiable (that sneeze was gross, but his optimistic thoughts about it were more so). Milo is also so human he grows on you. And I get the feeling plenty of readers will identify with him. Silberberg has captured the essence of plenty of 13 year old children (boy or girl). And then he adds the conflict of Loss and Grief.

The timeline of events leading up to the present are revealed throughout. The first pages are Milo’s life getting started at a new school/neighborhood. It isn’t until pages 13-14 that Milo begins to address his mother in the past tense, that you learn she was sick. Milo slowly unravels, even as the story tightens.

The progression of the story is nicely done. You move into the “fog”, the sadness and grieving, by degrees. Finding friends and interacting with the opposite sex. The awkward moments become more tender. Though there are still plenty of painful scenes. By the end, tears are sliding, but they are the good kind. Milo/Silberberg has a way of talking about the mother that is truly beautiful, and his struggles are wonderfully rendered.


Milo sneezing on, yes, Summer Goodman (2).

Silberberg does the illustrations in the book. They are a nice addition to the story (especially for fans of Diary of a Wimpy Kid). They keep to the light and comic and youthful. Their moments are no less poignant when necessary, a nice accompaniment.

Milo takes the weighty and keeps it afloat, determinedly so. This is a book about mourning and moving forward that is accessible to a greater audience than most. Quite fantastic. And it can just be plain fun. Some growing pains of the flinching sort, the kind most could laugh over, and a sweet lessons learned ending. Really, the ending is wonderful.

The suggested ages are 9-13. I agree. Boys, girls, readers, non-readers, comic lovers, literati…

Grown-ups could enjoy this as well, a fairly quick read. As a mother, I was effected by the read, thinking about my time spent with my family and my roles in the household…remembering with deep sighs what it was to be 13 and the weirdness we all harbor that makes us individuals and quite awesome… A good read, a good afternoon spent.


Thinking about Silberberg’s humorous treatment of the story, despite the depression at the core, I am reminded of Kirsten Tracy’s Camille McPhee Fell Under the Bus (Yearling, 2010), who’s protagonist deals with fighting parents—which I would recommend (though I think girls 8-12 would dig it over boys of the same age).

Alan Silberberg’s site.

another review of Milo I happened across at “Chocolate Air.”

my post on Camille McPhee.