Jake and Lily by Jerry Spinelli, 336 pp, RL 4
Jake and Lily is now in paperback!
Jake and Lily is the newest book from Newbery Winner (Maniac McGee) and Newbery Honor Winner (Wringer) Jerry Spinelli, author of one of my favorite books for teens, Stargirl, which I really need to review here. With Jake and Lily, Spinelli brings us the story of the titular twins and the summer of their twelfth birthday when they go through changes deeper and more meaningful than puberty. Spinelli performs the magic trick of telling their story with alternating narrators who's plots will appeal to both boys and girls. He does this without the typical assumptions about concessions it is assumed a girl will make when reading a book with a boy as the main character. In a time when I have been giving considerable thought to gender representation in picture books, with peripheral thinking regarding chapter books and middle grade novels, Spinelli's new book comes along at just the moment. Jake and Lily proves, without a doubt in my mind, that it is possible to write a book with equal appeal to boys and girls that also has equal page time for both boy and girl characters.
The introduction to Jake and Lily has the siblings taking turns speaking, Jake, as the oldest, speaking first. From then on, the chapters, some of which are no longer than a page, alternate between the voices of Jake and Lily. The two begin telling their story (and stories, while being twins is integral to their life experience, Spinelli also uses Jake and Lily to distinguish the two as individuals) with the strange events of their sixth birthday, which serves as a wonderful framework for the events that unfold over the course of the story. At three in the morning, on the day that they turned six, Jake and Lily both awaken to find themselves at the train station, holding hands, the smell of pickles surrounding them. This event, which occurs annually there after, serves to mark their momentous birth (they were born a month early as their parents traveled through the six-mile-long Moffat Tunnel aboard the California Zephyr) and as the cornerstone for the special sixth-sense, twin relationship that the siblings come to refer to as goombla. Communicating in ways that neither of them can explain, Jake and Lily can sense when the other is hurt, always know where the other is hiding in a game of hide-and-seek and, especially the way Lily sees it, know that they are never truly alone because they have goombla and therefore each other. For Lily, this connection to her brother defines her life and she repeats stories of their twinhood over and over in Jake and Lily. At the start of the summer vacation their parents move them into separate rooms and Lily is devastated, refusing to understand the reason for this. This separation and Lily's anxiety and anguish escalate when Jake begins spending time riding his bike with a group of boys headed up by Bump Stubbins, Lily's nemesis. Lily, who is expressive and dramatic, favors cheating, telling lies and burping in public over following the rules like Jake and expresses her frustration with her changing relationship with her twin emotionally and effusively. Her parents try to reason with her and punish her when called for, sending her to the Cool-It Room.
While it might seem stereotypical or an overt generalization, Spinelli had to create personality differences both the distinguish the narrative voices of Jake and Lily and to make their characters seem authentic. In doing so, he made Lily the emotional twin (typically female, I'd say) and Jake less expressive. Lily expresses her sadness, frustration, sense of loss and growing anger outwardly and sometimes directly at Jake, who does not respond. While it seems cruel at times, it also feels very real. Jake shares his thoughts most succinctly a third of the way through the book when he says, after riding away from Lily to join his friends,
Did I feel bad? There's Lily calling after me and I'm riding away. Sure I felt bad. I'm not a monster. But here's the thing she doesn't get: it's no big deal. Nothing strange is going on here. Nothing evil. Nothing tragic. The only thing going on here is growing up. When guys get older they start to hang with each other. It's like, the herd instinct. It's normal. No big deal. She thinks I'm the villain. I'm not the villain. I'm just a kid trying to grow up.
What does she want? Does she want me to spend my whole life with nobody but her? Oh look, there's Jake and Lily. They're seventy-nine years old and they still play poker and ride bikes together. They still head each other five miles away. Still sleep in the same bedroom. You can't tear them apart. Aren't they adorable? Twinny-twin twins.
Personally, I think Lily is starting to loves her marbles. Maybe she's allergic to something in the air and it;s making her goofy. When Bump reminded her she's a girl and told her to scram and we rode away, she says she called after me, right? Called my name. That's not the only thing she called. She called, "I'm not a girl! You believe it?"
Yet, Spinelli adds another twist by making Lily the less mature of the siblings, trumping the common idea that girls mature faster than boys. Lily's perspective and reactions to the situation are clearly indicative of a lack of or refusal to mature, yet it is her immaturity that gives her the ability to be so honest and expressive with her emotions. Lily has always seen herself as a twin first, human next and girl third, if that. When her brother forces her to bump twinhood out of the top spot Lily is forced to mature and to develop a sense of her self, herself as an individual. Fortunately for her, she has her grandfather, Poppy, to guide her in that process.
Jake and Lily's world traveling maternal grandfather settles just down the street from their house and becomes Lily's refuge. Poppy suggests Lily make a new friend. When that fails, he suggests she "get a life," or at least a hobby, but that bombs as well. Then he tells Lily that maybe she needs to get mad at her brother, but she can't do that either. Finally, admitting he has been wrong in the advice offered up, Poppy tells Lily that she has been trying to hard and forcing her brother to stay connected to her, to get their goombla back. "You can't try to love somebody. Either it's there or it's not," he says, reassuring her that, "Once entangled, forever entangled. You have to trust that." Lily has to trust that her brother loves her, that they are still connected and that something will come along to take the place of the space that Jake has left in her life. Poppy is especially qualified to give this sort of advice. When his wife, the love of his life, died some ten years earlier, he was devastated and tried to forget and cover over his grief. Then, he gave into it, followed it around the world and came home to his family. Lily knows this and, perhaps because of it, she is able to trust him and let things be between herself and Jake.
Meanwhile, Jake's experiences with the herd touch on some emotional subjects as well. As leader of the gang, Bump and the guys spend their days looking for and laughing at "goobers," also known as weirdos, outsiders, and bully targets. It is interesting to me that Jake and Lily's word "goombla" is so similar to "goober" and I wonder if Spinelli is up to something with this, but I haven't pieced it together yet. Where Spinelli does a fantastic, descriptive job detailing Lily's emotional anguish, he does an equally skilled job portraying Jake's concerns and crises in a quiet, straightforward way. While I identified with and felt Lily's pain more, I was equally compelled by Jake's dilemma with his friends and their bullying of a new boy in the neighborhood. I was especially gratified by the way that Spinelli brought his book to a close, wrapping up Jake and Lily's individual story lines in a very satisfying and realistic way while also creating a wonderful weaving together of the story lines at the very end of the book, returning to the train image from the beginning.
Spinelli's writing style, in this book especially, is plainspoken and absent of the poetic details that make a book like Sarah Pennypacker's Summer of the Gypsy Moths so memorable. However, that doesn't make Jake and Lily any less valuable, memorable or wonderful. Just different. It took me a while to fall into the rhythm of Spinelli's storytelling, but the more I think and write about Jake and Lily the more I am in awe of his craft as a writer and hope that others will discover this as well!