BookLife Prize - 2020
Plot/Idea: 9 out of 10
Originality: 9 out of 10
Prose: 8 out of 10
Character/Execution: 10 out of 10
Overall: 9.00 out of 10
Plot: Phillip, the new kid in school in Harwood's coming-of-age novel, faces realistic and relatable student and teen problems. The only thing that's going well for him is his English class, where he reads Ender's Game and discovers an outlet for his frustrations in the teacher's daily "jam sessions," free writing exercises that jump off from a creative prompt. Harwood's novel makes the everyday dramatic and urgent. Here, Phillip's fear of disappointing his mother, or his worry about what will happen when a suspended bully returns to school, prove gripping.
Prose/Style: Harwood's prose is clear and unadorned, offering little in the way of description. Instead, it's highly sensitive to Phillip's feelings as he bumbles through his school days and slowly discovers who his friends are. The kids' dialogue is sometimes flat, lacking the inventive weirdness of actual child-chatter, but the adults' speech is ideal: authority figures who soothingly help point Phillip (and possibly young readers) toward strategies for handling anxiety. Some passages of action falter, and more rigorous proofreading would standardize distractingly inconsistent product names. For most of the book, though, the prose persuasively connects Phillip's feelings to the scenes around him.
Originality: Harwood invests familiar character types with fresh power: spitball-blowing bullies; a fantasy-obsessed band of social outsiders; and a sensitive and observant English teacher. The embarrassments and minor disasters that Philip experiences in Jam Sessions aren't new, but through his eyes they feel fresh. Classroom scenes of Phillip and other students writing and sharing their own creative works based on a teacher's prompt are especially strong, as each kid's writing is unique and revealing of their personas. (That's true, also, of the instructor's sensitive responses.)
Character Development: Phillip, his friends, his teachers, his mother, and even his bullies all feel alive on the page. These seem like real kids, in a convincing world, facing real problems that readers might learn from – but that aspect of the book never interferes with the narrative's momentum or excitement.
Date Submitted: April 18, 2020
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