Dash & Lily's Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan, 259 pp, RL TEEN

Dash & Lily's Book of Dares 
is now in paperback!!

This summer, I decided to start reviewing teen books.  I'm not sure what I have to add to the arena of teen lit - there are plenty of great review blogs out there, most of them run by teens, teen librarians or teen authors themselves.  Looking back, I think that what I hoped to do by throwing my hat into this ring was twofold:  to offer up teen books with literary merit for parents to preview before handing them over to their young readers and also to expose the adults who read my blog (and maybe even read kidlit as well) to some remarkable teen books that are worth spending some time with whatever your age.  Really, reading teen books is like dessert for me - something I enjoy wholly but don't allow myself often (dessert: obvious reasons, teen books:  so many young readers books I need to review for my blog.)  But anything that author David Levithan, editorial director at Scholastic (and founding editor of PUSH, an imprint of Scholastic, dedicated to finding new authors and voices for teens) puts his pen to is, for me, like a 2lb box of Nuts & Chews from the 90 year old California candy company See's. Scrumtrulescent!  And, Dash & Lily's Book of Dares, co-written with the excellent Rachel Cohn, is a 2lb box of See's if there ever was one. Levithan and Cohn are the team who brought us that other 2lb box of Nuts & Chews, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, as well as Naomi & Ely's No Kiss List

While I generally do not like teenagers or being reminded of my teenage years, I was a teenager when John Hughes was changing my worldview with his movies and because of that (and the fact that I have a teenage daughter) I have a soft spot in my heart for thoughtful teen movies. I loved the movie Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist so much that I ran out and bought the book right after seeing it in the theater.  Read almost in one sitting, the book was marvelous, better than the movie, but in a good way.  Not the way that you wish the movie had never been made and the real life images of imaginary people and places could be bleached out of you memory, but in the way that you feel like you just got a second chance to spend quality time with people you got to know and like on screen. Happily, for bibliocinema fans, the day Dash and Lily's Book of Dares hit the shelves, sale of the movie rights were announced.  Even better, the film adaptation is to be produced by Scott Rudin (Orange County, Zoolander, Djarleeling Limited, Towelhead among many others) and directed by Lena Dunham, newly famous for the indie movie she wrote and directed, Tiny Furniture.  Should be just as good as the first adpatation of Cohn and Levithan's novel - as long as they find actors as perfectly cast as Michael Cera and the fabulous Kat Dennings were in Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist to play the snarly Dash and the fanciful Lily.

So, usually when I really love a book I find myself compulsively retelling the whole story in my review. And, while I am very tempted to do that with  Dash and Lily's Book of Dares, I won't.  This book is best unwrapped on one's own.  I will just tempt you with a few of the delicious details that had me chewing the pages eagerly from the get go.  And, for me, this book was a singularly personal experience for so many reasons.  First of all, besides the  love fest I already have a going on with the authors, I was finally drawn to pick up this book (which has been on the shelves for two months now) because my mother-in-law is generously treating my teenage daughter and son to New Year's Eve in NYC.  On top of that, a close friend just returned from a trip to NYC and a visit to The Strand (18 miles of books is their tagline), the amazing bookstore where Dash & Lily's Book of Dares begins.  The combination was just too perfect to pass up so I bought it for my daughter to read on the plane, hoping she might visit the Strand and other landmarks from the book.  Once I started reading it, I realized that it hit a lot of sweet spots for me, too.  A giant used bookstore, reminiscent of my college hangout, Powell's City of Books, a red Moleskine notebook and my teenage obsession and namesake of my first born, JD Salinger's Franny & Zooey.  From these elements, two unique and endearing (to me, anyway. I have no doubt others would find them annoying, but that's what happens when you aren't an everyman. Plenty of people find Zooey and Franny irritating) characters emerge and, as the book progresses, the journey is almost more compelling than the destination.

A child of an acrimonious divorce, Dash has carefully lied to his parents regarding his plans for the winter break.  Thinking Dash is spending the holidays with the other parent, his mother and father have left town and Dash finds himself happily leading a solitary existence traveling between both parent's empty apartments.  A word lover, Dash is happy to spend time roaming the 18 miles of books at the Strand.  As he says of himself, "I was horribly bookish, to the point of coming right out and saying it, which I knew was not socially acceptable.  I particularly loved the adjective bookish, which I found other people used about as often as ramrod or chum or teetotaler." Sometimes Dash roams by subject, sometimes he looks for books with green covers only and occasionally the "afternoon was sponsored by a particular letter and [he] would visit each and every section to check out the authors whose last names began with that letter."  Dash has decided to revisit "a particular favorite (he shall remain nameless, because I might turn against him someday)" when he sees "a peek of red." This turns out to be a notebook with a piece of masking tape on the cover inked with the words, "Do you dare?"  From there Dash follows a trail of clues that lead him from one obscure book to another, piecing together a message using pages numbers, line numbers and word numbers from the books.  When Dash gets to the last step in the process, leaving the notebook along with his email address tucked into the book of his choice with the surly bookseller, he decides to keep the game going and leaves a dare to the mysterious author of the notebook.  

The first half of the book is spent getting to know the two main characters as they think up creative places all over the city to hide the notebook for the other to find, all the while narrating alternating chapters.  Besides clues, the two also begin to reveal their innermost feelings in the pages of the book.  Dash is a realist, which can also sometimes read as pessimist, while Lily is an eternal optimist.  She says, 

Since I was eight I have been in literary love with the character Sport from Harriet the Spy.  I've kept my own Harriet-style journal - red Moleskine notebooks that Grandpa buys me at the Strand - since I first read that book, only I don't write mean observations about people in my journals like Harriet sometimes did.  Mostly I draw pictures in it and write memorable quotes or passages from books I've read, or recipe ideas, or little stories I make up when I'm bored.  I want to be able to show grown-up Sport that I've tried my darnedest not to make sport out of writing mean gossip and stuff.

Lily is a truly amazing character, the kind that can only have been born and raised in NYC, the kind that (I think, sadly) can only exist between the covers of a book. Maybe I am the pessimist, or maybe I am just jealous because Lily is the person I always wanted to be.  Lily has lead a  somewhat sheltered life, some of it by choice.  She has a doting (when he is not in love) older brother, Langston, involved parents and an extended Italian family that includes a retired, former corner store owner Grandpa who lives in the flat above Lily's, a cousin who works at the Strand, an uncle who has a seasonal job as one of the Santas at Macy's and a great-aunt who works at Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum.  Turns out the gig at the wax museum is only busy work for Great-aunt Ida, who Lily calls Mrs Basil E, as in, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler (yet another iconic, classic children's book set in NYC) because Ida is a former art gallery owner who made a small fortune in her trade and lives in a brownstone in Manhattan tastefully filled with artwork and antiques.  Also spending the holidays in the absence of her parents who are celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary with a vacation (and clandestine job search for Lily's dad) in Fiji, Lily is free to roam.  Langston is in love for the second time in his life and taking advantage of his position of head adult and Grandpa has gone to his winter home in Florida to propose to Mabel, his lady love who insists the kids call her "Glamma."  Lily takes the dares and thinks up new ones.  She finds herself at a punk klezmer concert on Christmas night, dancing her shoe (Great-aunt Ida's majorette boots from her marching days in high school) off and looking for clues in the bathroom.  This is where things go wrong and the second half of the story begins.  Instructed to leave the notebook with "two gumshoes," Lily finds that she can't let go of it and runs out of the club, losing a boot in the process.  Now Lily has no way of finding Dash, she doesn't even know his name, but, through the dares he has left for her, she has broken out of her shell a tiny bit and is ready for a taste of more change.  

Even though both Dash and Lily realize that the world of the notebook and the connection they have forged there is not real, they are both attached to it.  As a reader, I too found myself completely immersed in the hide-and-seek chase of the notebook, so much so that the second half of the book set in the harsh light of day was a bit jarring.  I am a romantic, and unrealistic romantic, and I could have read about the chase for another 100 pages.  But, the reality of the two characters and how they do find their way to each other and what they see and learn when they do is essential to the story.  As a parent, I am very happy to have my impressionable teenage daughter read a book with a story that approximates a realistic relationship between two teenagers over something like Twilight any day.  As a reader, I felt a little let down, but I know I would have felt very let down and cheated if Cohn and Levithan had ended the book any other way.  In fact, Dash and Lily's Book of Dares seems to end right where another book could start.  Lame, I know, but it could be called Dash and Lily's Book of Dates and, I have no doubt, would be as highly readable as this book is.

Thank you, thank you, thank you to Rachel and David for bringing us yet another pair of interesting, smart, funny, creative people to adore and admire.  I think that, maybe someday in the next few decades, readers might think of and refer to Dash & Lily in the same ways that Dash and Lily think of and refer to Zooey, Harriet, Sport and Mrs Basil E, among other literary greats.  Oh yeah, one last thing.  As a teenage fan of Franny & Zooey, I have read it once or twice as an adult.  In the pages of  Dash and Lily's Book of Dares, Lily sums up Franny's spiritual dilemma in a way that afforded me new insight into Salinger's character.  I think I may go back and read it again - although, as Dash says early in the book, I think I may have turned against my once favorite author over the years...  Or, perhaps it's just the perspective of adulthood.

David & Rachel in the Strand! 
 And, if you are ready to challenge the images you created in your head for Dash & Lily, check out the alternate, international (I think) cover for the book which I think is really cool and captures the tone and characters pretty well.  My daughter, who is now greedily reading the book, has chosen not to look until she finishes.

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