|Angela Johnson: Looking for Red|
and Schuster Books for Young Readers
Angela Johnson's Looking for Red delivers a prose poem about the painful things that happen to families. Johnson's spare, lyrical language creates the illusion of an easy book to grasp. Nothing could be further from the truth. While some young people might read this small book as a mystery, in the end the story turns into a tragedy.
Three months before the events recounted in the book, Mike, her brother Red, Red's girlfriend, and his best friend Mark stood on the pier by Mark's blue '65 Mustang and remembered the day they watched the Tall Ships go by. Red's two friends, and even his sister Mike, challenged Red to swim to the buoy and back. They knew Red swam well, and Mark promised to give him the car for the swim. Mike remembers "standing at the edge of where I thought nothing could change" that day. But everything did change.
Red disappeared into the sea. One minute he dove into the water, and in the next instant, he vanished. Now everyone must figure out how to go on without him. Mike and her parents feign happiness, but mostly they share sad family picnics and mask their sadness with small talk or no talk at all.
As Mike tries to make sense of her grief, Red appears to her as a vision, standing off to the distance, watching. She sees him regularly and wonders if others see him, but talking about Red doesn't come easy for Mike. When a neighbor recalls her own childhood memories of Red with the bereaved Mike, the young girl finally begins to heal. Mike hears stories she already knew and learns new ones, which make her laugh, "like secret gifts under a bed that you've been sleeping on forever and never knew anything was under."
This bittersweet novel weaves between past and present, which could make the book difficult for some in the book's recommended reading level (ages 10-14). Johnson handles the death of Red sensitively and thoughtfully, but the topic is serious and the story chilling.
Two-time Coretta Scott King Award winner Angela Johnson writes poetry, picture books, middle-grade novels, and young adult fiction. Along with children's writer and artist Peter Sis, Johnson received this year's McArthur Foundation "genius award." This marked the first time the Foundation bestowed this honor on authors of books for children and young people.
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