|Image: HarperCollins Publishers|
Middle Grade Monday features an impressive debut, Dan Unmasked by Chris Negron. Dan and Nate are best friends, baseball teammates and comics aficionados. Like most baseball players, Dan and Nate have their tics and rituals on and off the field. One includes the entire team when a new issue of the reclusive George Sanderson's Captain Nexus releases. The whole team meets in Nate's basement with their new issue and follow strict RULES for the ritual reading. The only non-team member invited to this club is Ollie, Nate's geeky little brother. Dan is begrudging about this and outright floored when Ollie brings a friend! Not only is his friend a girl, but Courtney flouts the rules of the reading. All this takes a back burner when, a few days later at baseball practice, Nate is beaned by a hard throw and falls into a coma. Nate is the team's pitching ace and they are heading into a tournament Dan feels they have no hope of winning without him. He feels terrible guilt because Dan thinks it's his fault that Nate is in a coma.
Nate's an all-around nice guy - accepting, approachable and athletic. Dan's a bit intense and possessive of Nate, even begrudging Ollie's need for Nate's attention. This may be because Dan's dad has been unavailable for awhile due to increased work demands. Dan is crushed by the guilt he feels over Nate's injury. Readers will find a lot to relate to as Dan navigates the guilt, hurt, feelings of helplessness and grief. The book's leisurely pace and page count allow for these explorations.
I do have a few quibbles, which are major for me as an adult, but young readers absolutely will not notice. My twelve-year-old self would've loved this book. First, one pitcher does not a baseball team make even in the major leagues. It bugged me that Nate seemed to pitch every game and once he was injured, his back-up pitcher pitched them all. No way that happens - Little League, Major League, any league.
Second, regular readers of this blog know what's coming. The coma. Lots of drawn out drama with little coinciding with real life, such as allowing anyone but family members at the bedside and unspecified crises, presumably having to do with cranial pressure, which should be relieved with surgery, but didn't happen here. As I mentioned, kids won't notice. Indeed many adults probably won't either, as this (and amnesia) is the stuff of soap operas and they're not going away. My soapbox. I'm stepping off now.
Chris Negron combines great baseball action with graphic novel fandom in this story of friendship and male bonding. Fans of both will love the combo. Happy book birthday tomorrow.
Chris Negron grew up outside Buffalo, NY, where he spent a huge chunk of his childhood collecting comic books and loving sports. But it was the hours of playing Dungeons and Dragons in friends’ basements that first gave him the dream of one day writing his own stories. That dream kept him company through college at Yale University and years of programming computers for big companies. Dan Unmasked is his debut novel, and he now lives outside Atlanta with his wife, Mary. Visit him at www.chrisnegron.com.
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