Clean Getaway by Nic Stone.
Crown Books for Young Readers, Random House Childrens, Penguin, New York, 2020.
MG fiction, 227 pages.
Lexile: 780L .
AR Level: not leveled
When William’s grandmother proposes a little trip, he’s all too happy about the loophole in his strict father’s grounding. But as they get further and further from home, and G’ma is acting stranger and stranger, he begins to believe that there is more to this unexpected road trip than he realized.
I hovered over this book a while, confused about the premise, because this doesn’t easily conform to a synopsis. So much happens without ever feeling overwhelming. The main characters are elderly white G’ma and William, who’s Black, eleven, and on spring break. Normally his father would take him on vacation, but some trouble at school led to the trip being cancelled and him grounded. It’s also been part of a larger miscommunication with his father.
G’ma is a character. She pursued a Black man in the 1960s, eventually marrying him, taking a road trip, and having a child together. All his life Scoob has seen her as a mostly typical grandmother, card games and mysterious untouchable box aside. On this trip, though, she’s talking to him in a way that she never has before, confiding in him and acting strangely.
Three people who are never on-screen also inform this story. William’s grandfather, G’ma’s Black husband who died in jail and is never mentioned by William’s father. William’s mother, who has been absent most of his life but lately resurfaced, is also mixed up in his thoughts about family, the stories we know or don’t know, and the stories we make up. Finally, William’s best friend Shenice, who he’s recently started seeing as a girl and not just a close friend, looms large in his mind.
Parents will want to be aware of mild swearing, stealing, smoking, an adult drinking alcohol, discussion of racial terror, reference to the n word (although not actually said), many references to the normalized prejudice of the 1960s, and a few to the normalized prejudice of our own time. Because of those, I wouldn’t generally suggest this as a whole class read for elementary students, although it could definitely be appropriate for many students. It would make a great read-aloud or group read for older students though.
One consideration that causes me to bump this higher than the 3rd-5th grade level is the moral and ethical complexity. Stone wisely does not pass judgement on any of her characters. She does something harder, and better, instead. The reader is called to know that certain events both past and present were unjust to William’s family, but also to consider the range of possible reactions (of which his father and grandmother tend to represent two extremes). I love the messy complexity of this family.
At the same time, Stone casually imparts knowledge about history – like green books! State facts, historic sites, some geography, events from the civil rights movement, cultural ephemera, camping skills, and tidbits from the natural world are all covered. Some of the plot twists felt obvious to an adult (though I suspect they’ll surprise a younger reader), but Stone’s genius is that I still got caught up in the story. It’s a roller coaster of a novel, and a few twists caught me unawares.
Another pet peeve is when illustrators aren’t listed on the title page. I understand why Nic Stone was prominent on the cover and spine, but an illustrator contributing more than just the cover image should be credited more clearly. I find it irritating to have to hunt for information on the artist.
The illustrations help break up the text and cue the reader. They align closely with the text and supplement the book well. In particular, the faux map covers (complete with Scoob’s illustrations) do an excellent job of breaking up sections and visually cueing the reader that Scoob has crossed another border.
This book was well formatted, full of little details like the Route # signs used for chapter headers. Key items from G’ma’s treasure box are shown, as are moments in their travels. The style is appealing to MG boys – I had to rush this review before mine took this book.
Part of the reason I buy so many books despite loving libraries is because I am a big rereader, especially of fiction. Some books I reread to lose myself in a book. I reread mysteries to feel superior about the red herrings that tricked me the first time. Some books, I reread just to try to figure out how the author did it – what word choices, sentence structure, emotional nuances, etc. make the book so great. This book is all three.
Every 8th grader should read this. It’s well written, sneaks some history and geography in, and asks big moral questions in a thoughtful, non-preachy way. This is even that rarity, a middle school book that could work for high school libraries. Stone is already an established teen name, and although her protagonist is a bit younger here, she’s still just as amazing of a writer. Recommended.