In September 2011, I traded blog entries with Aaron Starmer. He wrote about The Tanglewood Terror and I wrote about The Only Ones, which shared a “book birthday,” as folks call it. I was flattered when he asked me to read his new book, The Riverman, well before the release date.
There’s a frankness in Starmer’s books that’s unusual in middle grade books. In The Only Ones, it was a Lord of the Flies-like tribalism and wont to violence among kids without adult supervision. In The Riverman, it is Alistair re-discovering the girl down the street — he played with her as small children, they drifted apart, and now they drift back together. Fiona has secrets, and Alistair becomes fascinated by her. The fascination soon turns into a gut-hurting crush.
It’s become surprisingly rare for this kind of sexual awakening in a kids book. It’s too much for middle grade, too innocent for YA. Kids seem to leap from platonic friendships and squeaky clean tween romances to a jaded, experienced teen life without the upheaval in between. Here it is treated perfectly: not just the changing friendship between Alistair and Fiona, but the way that friendship changes Alistair’s other friendships. When Alistair’s fascination turns to dark speculations about Fiona’s family, the way he shares his suspicions, without having the vocabulary for it, is poignant and true. The slow pull away from his best friend and new eye-to-eye friendship with that boy’s delinquent older brother are dead on. This is what it’s like to be 13, that least represented demographic in books for young people.
You wouldn’t know from that description that I’m talking about a fantasy. Like When You Reach Me and Breadcrumbs, The Riverman is about real people with real problems who find a twist in their reality. And like those books, I would find it deeply engaging even without the fantastic angle. It is the nuanced, believable children dealing with mundane crises that make it a great book.
The fantasy stuff is pretty cool, too. I won’t say any more about that because the central premise of The Riverman should be discovered while reading it.