I’m beginning to feel like I’m really a YA lit blog pretending to be a general kidslit blog. For someone who used to read very little in the YA department, 2008 is proving to be a YA-rich year thus far. And if I keep finding teen titles as jaw-droppingly good as Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s The Off Season, I don’t imagine my YA kick will end any time soon.
When I read a book I love as much as I love The Off Season, I am almost reluctant to write about it at all, because nothing I write ever captures how completely satisfied I am with that particular book’s wonders. It seems enough to just say, “Go out there. Buy this book. Read it.” The Off Season will more than speak for itself, but I do have a few gushy things to mention. For those of you who’ve been living on a submarine for the past while, Murdock is the author of Dairy Queen, in which the story of the D.J. Schwenk, farm girl and football player extraordinaire, begins. Murdock won the 2006 Borders Original Voices Award for this debut, and you should most definitely begin there as The Off Season picks up right where Dairy Queen ends.
When the story starts, everything is looking good for D.J. Schwenk. She is the first girl linebacker in the history of Red Bend (and perhaps even Wisconsin). She has a sort-of boyfriend (who happens to play for the rival football team – but you can’t have everything). Her family is a bit bonkers, but that’s only normal. She and her best friend Amber seem to be figuring out where their friendship is headed. Then, ever-so-gradually, in the way that so often happens, everything starts crumbling all at once. The novel is mostly about how D.J. faces and grows through this intense period of change, when a lot of what she knows turns upside down. You will not be able to stop reading, and the reason? The voice.
In just about all of the reviews I’ve looked at, everyone mentions “the voice.” D.J. Schwenk is as real a character as you will find in any YA novel. You will feel that if you could just find the right small town, and the right family farm, you could easily find D.J. shooting hoops in the yard or heading out to the barn to get started on the milking. That’s how real her voice sounds. There is something deeply satisfying in reading a true character. This takes you away as much as (or more than) any escapist fiction ever can.
It’s also funny, in a more understated way than Dairy Queen. The whole Schwenk clan is a riot, though never ridiculous or purely comical. This book is about looking for a way to make sense of life when bad things happen, little and big. There’s so much you could dig into with a book group, or in the classroom: family responsibilities, the complexity of sibling relationships, first love, changing realities on family farms, honesty and secrecy in families, friendships and relationships…
So enough already. If you must, spend a minute or two more (but no longer) checking out a few more reviews of The Off Season. Then read it already.