Under-the-Radar Book of the Week: SCRAWL

Elizabeth Bluemle -- November 16th, 2010

As the year draws to a close, and I pull together the Flying Pig’s annual catalog, I think a lot about books I’ve loved that have flown under the radar, either critically speaking or with the broader reading public.

For a while, I was afraid that TR Simon and Victoria Bond’s unforgettable Zora and Me would top my under-the-radar list, but finally, the reviews started coming in, and then the New York Times featured it, so the recent surge of attention has allayed my fears. I think it’s an extraordinary book—beautifully written, wholly original, and rich in scope. I’m so glad it’s finally reaching its wider audience.

So, with Zora off my plate, I am going to talk about a terrific, funny YA novel called Scrawl. I’d met the author, Mark Shulman, at various writing conferences, so when he handed me an ARC of his debut YA novel in January, I was a little apprehensive, in that way we are in this field when someone we know gives us something to read. It can be awkward. What if we don’t like it?  So, to be honest, I put off reading Scrawl, even though I’d found Mark to be very funny and smart in person, which usually bodes well for writers, and even though it was a Neal Porter/Roaring Brook title (and therefore likely to be quite good), and even though I really liked the cover (refreshingly, not a photo of a teen). I also liked the set-up: a bad boy’s story, told from his point of view. I am a sucker for a good bad boy. Still, even with all that in its favor, the book got no attention from me for months, just guilty glances whenever I walked by.

Finally, avoidance gave way to suck-it-up-ness a few weeks ago, when I found out Mark would be at the Rochester Children’s Book Festival. It would be just plain rude not to read the book before running into him. So I picked it up and blam! read it in one sitting and loved it. I had so much fun reading Scrawl, in fact, that I’d read it again. And that is saying something for this ARC-laden bookseller.

So here’s how it goes: Tod Munn is in detention writing a journal for the benefit of Mrs. Woodrow, the guidance counselor charged with seeing him through his many weeks of afterschool punishment for various acts of bullying and mayhem. He doesn’t want to write about himself, but it was that or get sent to juvie. So Tod chooses, as the book trailer says, “to sit down every day … [and] scrawl his story in his crappy notebook in his smart-mouth way to write what it’s really like to be a bully.”

Tod has finagled his way to this indoor detention while his buddies (they call each other “droogs” à la A Clockwork Orange hooligans), are stuck doing yardwork and maintenance outside. Needless to say, this does not sit well with them, and their friendship begins to wear as Tod’s story — his real story — begins to change.

Tod is a smart, cynical, strong, confused teen who excels at self-protection, but, through the act of writing the journal — and falling for a girl — he starts to let his soul seep through the cracks. Not in an annoying, sappy way, but in a self-aware, extremely observant, and funny way. The voice is the absolute star of this book.

Other notable characters include the droogs (rough-hewn tough boys and one rich kid tough-guy wannabe, all of whom are more limited than Tod), Tod’s hardworking, unsentimental seamstress mother, his unpredictably grumpy stepdad, and, of course, the girl, a character loved by smart YA writer dudes the nation over: an unconventionally pretty, smart, nerdy-cool arty girl who knows herself, plays by her own rules, exudes confidence, and yet is reassuringly, accessibly misfit. In Scrawl, she sculpts and directs plays and manages to use the system without getting sucked in by it. She also manages to get Tod to provide costumes for the play, which leads to some harrowing and hilarious mishaps. Amid the action are very sweet moments of revelation and vulnerability.

Scrawl‘s Tod Munn is the funny brother of the main characters in Chris Lynch’s Who the Man (sadly OP at the moment), Watt Key’s Dirt Road Home, and Michael Northrop’s Gentlemen, misunderstood-bully books I also loved. Oh! And he’s chunky, and it’s just a thing, not a thing.

There’s something special about this book. It’s not that the plot elements are so brand-spankin’-new, and yes, there is some neatness to the outcome; but it’s all put together so pleasingly, with punch and wit and smarts, and in such a way that the events and characters stay with you, that I didn’t really care. The writing is swift and lively, and the scenes are vividly drawn. I’ll never forget Tod scavenging through clothes looking for costumes at the donation store, or in his chilly glass-walled porch room, or staring at the statue he admires so much.

If you or a teen you know is a fan of any of the books mentioned above, or, for that matter, Gary D. Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars, give Scrawl a try. I think you’ll like it.

Nancy Werlin liked it, too. She said in a blurb on the ARC: “Scrawl is a fabulous, riveting read. Tod is probably the most interesting bad boy I’ve ever met in YA fiction, and Mark Shulman is certainly one of the best new voices.” I agree wholeheartedly.

I hope to add more favorite under-the-radar books in the upcoming weeks. What are yours?

5 thoughts on “Under-the-Radar Book of the Week: SCRAWL

  1. Mark Shulman

    Thank you so much, Elizabeth, for this sublime review. I hope my book is even half as good as you present.

    Kate, the book is in fact a Middle Grade/YA crossover. I didn’t want to age the character, or give him a race, for that matter. Nor do I want only boys to read it… the females are all strong characters. There’s nothing in the book that’s inappropriate for a fifth grader, or too young for a senior. The incredible cover design has made it a good fit for almost anyone. Thanks!

  2. Kate Messner

    I’ve been looking forward to this one ever since Mark told me about it at KW last year – can’t wait! I’m coming over to shop for my class library soon. Is SCRAWL okay for most middle school kids, you think (I am pretty liberal)? Or is it more high school?

  3. P. Miller

    Thank you for a wonderful post. I have read Scrawl and I could not agree more: There IS something special about this book. What a voice Mr. Shulman has given to Tod! I’m a high school librarian and I’ve ordered another copy because of the buzz among students. I think Scrawl will be around for a long, long time.

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