Kind of a Big Deal
If ever a story was designed to be read amidst a worldwide pandemic and lockdown, it would be Kind of a Big Deal by Shannon Hale. Without mentioning the pandemic at all, it manages to perfectly capture the feeling of being cut off from the world and in need of an escape – a feeling that I have shared this year.
Josie Pie was, for lack of a better phrase, kind of a big deal in high school. A fabulous singer and actress, she starred in all the school plays since her freshman year. Everyone at school knew who she was, and new students would sometimes ask for her autograph, certain she would be famous on Broadway someday. Josie had a charismatic boyfriend, Justin, a stellar best friend/sidekick, Nina, and a supportive drama teacher, Mr. Camoin, all encouraging her to dream big. In fact, Mr. Camoin was so sure of Josie’s talent after she won a national singing award that he pushed her to move to New York City and try out for a Broadway show where he had a connection. So Josie dropped out of her senior year of high school, moved to New York… and fell flat on her face.
As is true of so many Broadway hopefuls, Josie went to her group audition and discovered that she was no one special. The abilities which made her stand out in Yasmine, Arizona failed to impress in New York. Soon enough she found herself nannying to pay the bills, and when the single mother she worked for needed to move to Montana for work, Josie tagged along. Because why not? As the book opens, Josie is settling into Missoula, Montana as the primary caregiver of Mia (whose mother is on an extended business trip). She has no friends around, no school to attend, no regular social activities; in short, Josie spends her time either caring for Mia at home, taking Mia out to the park, or wandering aimlessly while Mia is in preschool. It’s a sort of unofficial, non-pandemic isolation, and it’s clear Josie’s mental state is taking a hit as a result.
Then one day, Josie and Mia stop into a local bookstore and Josie picks up a romance novel. When she opens it at the park, she’s not just engrossed by the book – she’s absorbed into it. Taking on the role of a secondary character, Josie is able to divert the story and charm many of the main characters – who bear a remarkable likeness to people in her own life. For a little while Josie forgets her troubles, singing to the applause of a camp of bandits, and flirting with the hero who looks like Justin. It’s an idyllic escape from the real world, where Josie’s talents are no longer special, her boyfriend is distracted (possibly by hanging out with another girl), and her best friend has moved on to college. So as soon as Josie confirms there was no real time slippage from her adventure, she’s determined to get back into a book.
Rather than staying with the same story, Josie tries out a variety from the store – everything from zombie novel to academic treatise to comic book. With each story she tries on a new identity to escape the dissatisfaction and boredom of her own life, and slowly she begins to learn things about herself. She sees past her original self-image of ‘special’ and re-evaluates her future, without the goal of Broadway. She revisits high school (literally) and realizes it wasn’t as idyllic as she cast it in her memories. I particularly loved the conversation she has with a character (in a book Josie visits) who appears as her friend Nina. It’s a cathartic experience where Josie realizes that even with her as a sort of champion, Nina had a very difficult time with bullies in high school. Now that Nina is away at college, she’s building the life she wants, where she is the star instead of Josie. After years of being center stage, it’s a revelation for Josie to realize she only plays a supporting role in Nina’s story, and that Nina is starting to outgrow her.
While I had some trouble liking Josie in the beginning due to her superior attitude, moments like this humble her and help her mature into a young adult I could respect. Hale does a wonderful job of showing Josie’s emotional growth as her self-image is stripped away, and then built back up through her determination not to “peak in high school”. By the time the book ends, she’s a new person, and ready to live in the real world again.
The only complaint I have about this fun story of personal growth while in isolation is regarding Josie’s boyfriend. Throughout the book, the real Justin seldom texts and keeps missing Josie’s calls. It seems like the writing is on the wall, but a desperate Josie keeps the spark alive by connecting with him through the characters she meets in her books who look like him. To me, this felt like more poor judgment on Josie’s part, to be clinging to a boy who was no longer into her. She finally starts to let go of him in the end… only to have Justin show up and redeem himself. While Josie is satisfied, as a reader my main connection to Justin was his doppelgangers in the books – who were ultimately fake. So I was left in this sort of no man’s land where I no longer hated Justin, but also didn’t particularly like him, and wasn’t sure why Josie wanted him.
One of the most difficult things about writing a young adult book, I imagine, is getting the voice just right. Hale attains that perfect mix of ennui, arrogance, and insecurity here. While not always likeable, Josie is invariably relatable, and her need to escape from a difficult reality is one we can all understand this year. It’s extremely satisfying to see her growth, and a fun time to watch her hopping through books – as every bookworm has long dreamed of doing.