Kind of a Big Deal, Shannon Hale (Roaring Brook 978-1-250-20623-7, $18.99, 389pp, hc) August 2020.
When Shannon Hale’s thoughtful Kind of a Big Deal opens, readers quickly discover that protagonist Josie Pie (her stage name), is living the unenviable reality of having peaked in high school. After flaming out in an ill-thought Broadway attempt, she is now the nanny for a sweet little girl whose dynamic mother recently relocated temporarily to Missoula MT for work. As a disappointed high school dropout with no plan other than to dodge questions from friends back home, certain that she is drifting ever further from both her best friend (in Chicago) and her boyfriend (back home in Arizona), Josie knows she needs to come up with a new plan for her life but doesn’t know what that should be. Then one day she and her young charge wander into a quirky bookstore and she leaves with what the owner has promised be a fun and distracting bodice ripper. When she later begins to read, Josie finds herself actually physically drawn into the narrative and living the life of one of the minor characters. Josie becomes the star of the story and, for the first time in a long time, feels like she just might make it after all.
Here’s the problem: the universe never gives you something for nothing, and as Josie eventually discovers, the price for her is terrifically high.
Kind of a Big Deal is an interesting fantasy in that it is so grounded in reality that for much of the book readers will genuinely wonder (as Hale certainly wants them to), if Josie is really “falling” into the novels or rather having some sort of dreamy escapist experience that feels real to her but is not. The fact that Josie spends no small amount of time reconsidering many of her past decisions, including the ones that led her to New York City, supports the idea that she is so bummed out that “disappearing” into a book is not just reasonable but relatable. (Aren’t we told to “get lost in a book” whenever we need a break from our lives?) There is still that intriguing bookstore that suggests there is something else going on here. From haunted houses, to the stage, to the French countryside, the books keep sending Josie out to see what she can find in the pages and Josie keeps learning more about herself with each adventure. She also finds the lives she can lead in the text to be more enjoyable than all the daily disappointments of her “real” life. That’s the trick of course, and the true hint that something nefarious is going on.
From its premise to the inclusion, in the final pages, of Josie’s “booklist,” Shannon Hale has crafted the most satisfying sort of coming-of-age drama here for bookish teens. For all that it grapples with some serious questions, and serious disappointments, Kind of a Big Deal is really an exceedingly happy book. Josie figures things out, she makes some friends, she finds herself, and she defeats the bad guys in what is [mostly] a battle of wits. In 2020, I call this a major and necessary win. I liked hanging out with Josie, and I bet a lot of you will, too.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the February 2021 issue of Locus.
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