33 Minutes by Todd Hasak-Lowy, 210 pp, RL 4

33 Minutes (subtitle: . . . Until Morgan Sturtz kicks my butt) by Todd Hasak-Lowy caught my eye with the title alone. The cover is quite striking as well. And the interior artwork by bethany bARTon that includes some very funny charts, lists and graphs, is great too. But what I really love about 33 Minutes is that Hasak-Lowy covers a province normally dominated by girls in middle grade novels - a faltering friendship. There are so many middle grade and YA books about girls navigating the new social worlds of middle school and high school, shedding old selves and friends and finding new ones, but (and I'm sure it exists and I just don't know about it) it feels to me like there have not been any straightforward books that approach this common phenomena from a boy's perspective. I scrolled through the titles I labeled Real Life Boy Stories and the closest I could get to a story about boys that honed in on friendship was Rebecca Stead's Liar & Spy which, while it is about two boys and their friendship, has layers to the story that make it about more than that. And, though these are all fantastic books that feature boys as the main characters struggling with friendships, The Trouble with Mark Hopper, Nerd Camp and Wonder also have other layers to their plots that make them about more than that. With 33 Minutes Hasak-Lowy zeros in on the social conflicts and differences that make the life of main character and narrator, seventh grader Sam Lewis, so fraught. 

And he does this brilliantly, creating an engaging if not always reliable voice in Sam. When the story starts at 11:41 am (each chapter denotes the passage of time as the moment when, thirty-three minutes in the future, Morgan Sturtz is going to kick Sam's butt) Sam is in his history class trying not to show off his knowledge that seems to extend beyond that of his teacher, the mustache-chewing Mr Griegs. When class lets out at 11:45 am, Sam finds himself walking the halls, trying to avoid the cafeteria and the inevitable butt-kicking that Morgan will dispense when lunch is over and the cafeteria clears out. As the minutes pass the story unfolds. It turns out Morgan and Sam, who seem to be opposites in every way, have been best friends since first grade, but Chris Tripadero moving across the street from Sam right before the start of the school year seems to have been the tipping point for these two. Sam Lewis is a scrawny brainiac who scored in the 97% on his PSATs and is the star and captain of the ArtithmeTitans. Morgan is a big kid who needs deodorant and is obsessed with football. But the two have shared a lot over the years, from winning a kickball tournament in first grade to passing paper airplane notes to TAMADE. TAMADE, The Absolutely Most Amazing Day Ever, happened last February when Sam and Morgan were stuck inside because the Michigan weather was 14 below. Taking on the avatars of Viko Paz and Kedi Balagan, Morgan and Sam play Alien Wars all day long, making it to the final battle some "nine hours, three pizzas, two bags of Cheetos, and four liters of Mr Pibb later, to be exact." The boys find themselves beamed up into the mother ship and share "the best high-five in high-fiving history." However, sometimes a shared past is not enough to ensure future friendship.

In a cruel twist of fate, Chris's dad asks if Chris can walk to school with Sam every day since he has to leave for work early. The enforced friendship of Chris and Sam is what leads to the eventual dissolution of the longtime friendship of Sam and Morgan, a "Friendship Flow Chart" illustrating this perfectly. Or Chris just the straw that broke the camel's back? While Chris is definitely a bad seed with no parental supervision who brings out the worst in Morgan, there is more to this story. Much more. Hasak-Lowy does a wonderful job weaving flashbacks and memories, future fantasies and major events like an all-school food fight and a real fire alarm into the plot to examine the trajectory of Sam and Morgan's friendship as it is about to go up in smoke, figuratively and literally. I don't want to give away too much more of 33 Minutes, but I do want to point out a few aspects of the plot that I, as a parent, as a lover of kid's literature, and as someone who went though something similar in middle school - minus the fist fight - really appreciate about this book. First of all, despite a few amazing disruptions that delay the butt kicking that was supposed to go down in thirty-three minutes, Hasak-Lowy does bring Sam and Morgan together on the athletic field where Sam decides to face the inevitable. There are a few shoves, an attempt on Sam's part to kick Morgan in a very sensitive spot and, finally, a blow to the jaw. Of course I don't condone violence, but I am also a realist and know that my two sons, along with many other boys who are not inclined to fighting and probably share more than a few of Sam's finer qualities, will find themselves in a similar position someday, trying to avoid a fight but not wanting to be called a coward. I really appreciate Hasak-Lowy playing out this scene in 33 Minutes rather than having adults intervene or some other contrivance that avoids the fight. Because of this, I also appreciate this scene as someone who loves kid's books. Hasak-Lowy doesn't take the safe, tidy way out of this story thread (and one that adults might prefer) and his novel is stronger, and the ending much more powerful, for it. And, in a way that I appreciate as a lover of kid's literature and as a parent, there is an insightful, caring adult who steps in after the fight to impart some perspective and wisdom. As they walk back to the school after the fire drill is over, Ms. Z, the art teacher, says to Sam, 

This sucks. This sucks in a major, major way. And you know what else? Middle school, it pretty much sucks too. And I speak from experience. I mean, you've only been here for two years. This is my thirteenth year. Thir-teen, Sam. So, you know, I've seen some nasty stuff . . . And, well, so here's my advice, and a promise, too: Wait. Be patient. You're not going to be here forever. And in the meantime, even though you and this place don't fit together so great all the time, be you. Morgan and the other guys might not approve, but other people do . . . I do, Sam. I approve. I do. And I know there are other kids who do too, even if this stupid place makes it hard for them to admit it. So, I don't know, be nice to the ones who are willing to admit it. Because that's all you can do. That's it.

I wish someone had said that to me when I was in middle school...

The ending of 33 Minutes is very powerful. In the penultimate minute of the story, to be precise, the seven seconds that elapse between 1:15:52 and 1:15:59, Sam and Morgan sit in the principal's office, their parents on the other side of the door about to claim them, Sam biting his lip trying not to cry. As Morgan gets up to leave Sam imagines seven different ways their middle school lives will play out from this moment on. They all make sense, feel real and play out the various ways the boys might go on in the wake of the end of their friendship. It's not too bleak, and there is even a moment of glimmering hope when Sam imagines himself paired up with Morgan in an eighth grade cooking class where a thaw begins and they can even have a laugh over the "red velvet cake disaster." However, the final and most moving possibility Sam imagines is this one:

Actually, Once upon a time, Sam Lewis and Morgan Sturtz were best friends. Then they stopped being best friends. And for better or for worse, they were never friends again. But they were best friends, for a bunch of years they were definitely best friends. They were maybe even the very best friend either of them would ever have. 

Things don't always work out and people don't always stay friends, for good and bad reasons, all of which are part of 33 Minutes. Kid's books, from picture books on upwards, spend so much time teaching kids how to be a friend: teaching how to share your toys and just how fun it is when you play together, teaching how to accept people who are different from you and enjoy learning from these differences, teaching how to say "I'm sorry" and how to forgive, but 33 Minutes is the first book I have ever read that shows readers how a friendship can end and how endings, even if they are painful and scary, aren't always bad. 33 Minutes shows how endings don't always mean someone was right and someone was wrong, and how endings can also be beginnings, even if it seems like a hard and lonely thing to start over. 

Source: Review Copy

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