Book review: The books of Crystal Allen

If you like character-driven, middle-grade fiction about realistic kids of color doing real things–with a lot of humor and learning-from-mistakes–check out Crystal Allen’s wonderful books.

When I attended the SCBWI Houston conference, I had the pleasure of meeting Crystal and having her review my manuscript. Her advice has been incredibly helpful, and I’m hoping it’s the beginning of a writerly friendship. I’ve been studying (and enjoying!) her books to pick up tips about creating great characters.

Crystal’s first book, How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy, features wise-cracking, prank-pulling, 13-year-old bowling prodigy Lamar–a kid whose big talk hides his insecurities. Lamar’s voice and sense of humor keep readers rooting for him: “Since Saturday, I’ve fried Sergio like catfish, mashed him like potatoes, and creamed his corn in ten straight games of bowling.”

Everybody loves Lamar’s basketball-star brother Xavier, to the point that Lamar feels invisible. Because of his asthma, Lamar can’t play most sports and worries about attracting attention, from both his dad and cute Makeda. Lamar gets mixed up with troublemaker Billy Jenkins, despite his own conscience and best friend Sergio’s warnings. When Xavier pushes Lamar too far, he and Billy aim for the biggest prank of all–not realizing until too late the extent of the consequences.

I love how Lamar navigates the tricky choices he makes, eliciting compassion even while the reader shouts, “No, Lamar, don’t do it!” The realistic aftermath allows Lamar to work toward redemption in believable, heartwarming ways.

Crystal’s second book, The Laura Line, introduces Laura Eboni Dyson, another powerhouse character full of personality and endearing flaws. She’s a 13-year-old wannabe plus-sized model and powerful baseball pitcher, dreaming of the day girls can play baseball–not softball–in her Texas hometown.

Laura’s crisis centers around the “slave shack” on her grandmother’s property: a building that housed her ancestors when the land was a plantation. Laura refuses to step foot in the shack, despite her family’s gentle insistence that it is a “monument to the strong women of her family.” When Laura’s teacher announces a field trip for the whole class to visit the shack, Laura decides she must get the trip canceled–but the harder she tries, the more fascinated her classmates become. Laura must come to terms with the shack, and when she finally takes a peek for herself, she’s astounded by what she finds.

Like Lamar, Laura slowly learns from her mistakes; she sees herself as part of a continuum of strong women only after she threatens the shack’s existence. Again, Crystal raises the stakes believably and allows the characters to both escalate their problems and find satisfying resolution afterwards.

I’m still in the middle of Crystal’s latest series, The Magnificent Mya Tibbs, about a younger girl navigating the tricky waters of third grade friendships. I love Mya’s cowgirl-boot-wearing character and can’t wait to find out how she handles being Spirit Week partners with the biggest bully in school. (Not to mention Mya’s newest adventure, The Wall of Fame Game).

Funny, thoughtful, stubborn, and brave, Lamar, Laura, and Mya are unique and inspiring kids who will remind you of people you know–and people you would like to know.

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