I was disinterested in reading grown-up things today. So, I decided to peruse the recently returned carts outside the office and happily came up with one of my favourites, Stanford Wong Flunks Big Time by Lisa Yee. I re-read a bit of it and thought I’d like to re-endorse it as one of the best children’s books I’ve read all year. Stanford Wong, basketball genius and also “the only dumb Chinese kid in America” (his words), finds out that he’s failing English and therefore will not be allowed to be on any basketball team the following year. Since he’s flunking, he has to give give up the opportunity to go to a prestigious basketball camp AND he’s forced to accept tutoring from his ultimate nemesis, Millicent Min. To make matters worse, his beloved grandmother, Yin-Yin may be sent to a retirement home and his parents won’t stop fighting! In a single summer, Stanford is forced to turn his academic career around while balancing basketball, friends, family, and … girls. Well, just one girl. Writing it out, the plot sounds relatively banal, but in reality, Yee’s character development and writing style make the book really funny and warm. The kind of thing that makes you want to both cheer and cry at the same time, even! It’s great. Nonsequitor WARNING: This book WILL make you want to eat dim sum like nobody’s business. I’m not even joking.
Something that is interesting about Yee’s plot structure is that there are no true antagonists in the traditional sense of the word. Really, Stanford’s worse enemy and best friend in the book seems to be himself, as is the case with so many kids at that age. Sure, there’s Millicent Min, the uber-nerd who seems to perturb Stanford every chance she gets. But the reader can see that Stanford, while annoyed with her, truly deep-down has a fondness for her that transcends their outwardly differing world views; a fondness that is finally realized in the denouement of the book. Also looming large on the “conflict” side of the line are the seemingly disapproving parental units, but Stanford’s need for acceptance bleeds through so strongly that the reader cannot help but understand that while his parents stress him out with their expectations and their own problems that he really cares for them and they for him.
Finally, there’s Digger, the tough, bullying, self-imposed “leader” of the Roadrunners (Stanford’s basketball gang) who actually IS an antagonist, but since he’s on the basketball team he sort of has the sense of “the positive aspect of Stanford’s life” even though he’s a major stress on the team and in the novel. Digger seems, at first glance, to be a classic antagonist in the novel: rich, strong, handsome, brutish and conniving. But part of his character development that makes him, in my eyes, a pitiable character, is the physical abuse he suffers at the hands of his rich, strong, handsome, brutish and conniving father. This abuse is possibly the only aspect of the book that really bothers me: It’s always alluded to, but never fully addressed… and also never fully resolved. Instead, towards the end he’s awkwardly villified and as part of a final conflict resolution, Stanford and the other Roadrunners walk away from him and are subsequently a lot less cool, but much more better off. [Oh - SPOILER ALERT I suppose... but you knew it would happen. This is, after all, tween fiction.] Yes, this teaches good life lessons to adolescent boys (money and popularity are not as good as friends and being kind, etc.) but the adult in me (yes, there is a little bit of one) really felt badly for this kid who tries to buy friends and bully and blackmail them into staying in the friendship. I thought it was fairly irresponsible of Yee as an author to touch on such a serious topic and then never brings it into the plot more fully, or resolve it. I ended up wondering about Digger’s safety, especially since his group of friends, who really could have helped him, have deserted him.
The other protagonists in the book are simply delightful. My particular favourite are the pair of grandmothers, Maddie and Yin-Yin (Millicent’s and Stanford’s, respectively), who have been best friends since they were girls and “when they get together, they don’t sound like grandmas, they sound like normal people.” They are hilarious, kind and caring – the kind of grandmas anyone would be proud to call their own. Also, the remainder of Stanford’s basketball team, Tico, Stretch, and Gus are in my opinion, the sweetest group of adolescent boys ever to have dribbled a basketball across the pages of fiction. There’s a scene during which Stretch and Stanford watch Sesame Street together. Simply precious. It should be noted that Yee wrote Stanford Wong for her daughter, Kate, to make her try to like tweenage boys, so… maybe not the most realistic depiction in the world… but what’reyougonnado?
The best part is, if you end up liking Stanford Wong, it’s a series! Well, a series… of… perspective, if you will. Yee writes about all the occurances of one summer (of flunking, winning, and moving) from the perspective of three different people in this series of books. Millicent Min, Girl Genius and So Totally Emily Ebers are the other two installments told from the perspectives of Millicent Min (girl genius) and Emily Ebers, Stanford’s “girlfriend.” So – I will leave you with that. Stanford Wong may flunk big time, but his story does not. And now, I’m going on vacation! Hurray!