When BOBBY VS. GIRLS (ACCIDENTALLY), the first book in the Bobby series, came out, reviewers praised Lisa Yee for creating such a diverse cast of character and, importantly, not making a big deal about it. Kids’ books which feature and are explicitly about race and diversity are needed, of course, but so are those that don’t have these issues as their main, or sole, focus.
These sorts of books contribute to the “normalizing” of children’s literature, something I’ve posted about here before. But it would be a shame to write about the Bobby novels and talk only about this aspect of them, because the books are exceptionally well-written (and well-illustrated to boot).
One thing I especially like about the Bobby books is Yee’s treatment of skateboarding. I grew up skateboarding, for years and years doing it pretty much constantly, and I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about it (you can read about some of them here). And so it always drives me a little crazy when a kid lit character is made a skateboarder in a clumsy sort of way, and for some reason – possibly a misunderstanding on the authors’ part of what skateboarding means to kids – loads of kid lit characters are thoughtlessly outfitted with skateboards and a handful of (inevitably misused) skateboarding terminology.
I’m not sure why so many authors fail to do the necessary research when it comes to skateboarding. And yes, I know that I am perhaps uniquely sensitive to this problem. But think of a novel that features some other activity, say football or ballet, and then imagine coming across a phrase such as “he kicked a touchdown” or “she did a super awesome really hard spin move.” It’d grate against your ears. It’d pull you out of the story, the same as it would any other reader even vaguely acquainted with football or ballet. And if kid lit authors are so sure that skateboarding is a big deal with today’s kids (and if they weren’t sure, why would it turn up in so many books?), then they ought to put in a little more effort to get it right.
For these reasons, I’m always extra appreciative and excited when an author does put in that extra effort. And after reading her books, it’s clear that Lisa Yee did her homework. At the very least, she considered what skateboarding might mean to kids – and, in this case, to her character Bobby. But I’d be willing to bet that she did more, reading up on it or talking to a young skater in her life.
There’s one moment in BOBBY THE BRAVE (SOMETIMES) that made this much clear to me. It comes during a low moment for Bobby, when he’s feeling particularly worried that he, unable to throw or catch a football to save his life, will never make his ex-NFL star father proud. To take his mind off all of this, Bobby goes skating, and after he does a few quick tricks, we read this:
There was something liberating about skating. Planting your feet on the deck and the feeling of the sidewalk beneath you. The freedom of flight when you got air, and the hard solid landings when you ollied just right. Getting speed and then cruising. With skating, it was just Bobby and his board. No teams. No teacher. No rules.
That right there is the essence of skateboarding, the aspect of the activity that has, for decades now, gotten so many kids so passionately hooked. It can be done with friends, of course – and is often most fun that way – but it is, at base, an individualistic endeavor. The self-reliance it requires, the diligence it demands, and the way it morphs something as ordinary-seeming as a street corner into a blank canvas – this is what kids find so addictive. It speaks to a part of them that can’t be easily or otherwise reached, and fulfills a set of desires that organized and rule-bound team sports simply can’t.
The Bobby series is great for a number of reasons. Not only does Yee tell good stories, but the world she’s built has the potential to teach young readers lots of good lessons. And I’m glad she put in the time and effort needed to make her main character’s relationship to his favorite activity feel so real and true. Because if the false notes so common in other kid lit books about skateboarding leave me feeling frustrated and alienated from the story, its characters, and its author, imagine how a younger reader might feel. None of the good that books like Yee’s have to offer would get through to them, and that’s just a silly risk to take.