Bingo tile: Star (I know, I know, but I am determined to Bingo this year!) both for the amazing production on this auidobook and because Zola and Portico are stars
I am doing something(s) completely different (for me) with this book, so let’s see how it goes! I am reviewing a kids book that I listened to with my son (who is 9), and I will do my best to reflect my experience and what I heard from him.
Stuntboy, In the Meantime, by Jason Reynolds, briefly, relates the story of Portico Reeves, who lives in a castle – his apartment building is the largest building on his block, and, he imagines, in the whole city. There are so many doors in the castle with so many superheroes behind them, so Portico develops an alter ego, Stuntboy, to protect all of those superheroes. Reynolds introduces him, as follows:
This is Stuntboy. This guy, right here. HIM. You can’t tell just looking at him, but he’s the greatest superhero you’ve never ever heard of. And the reason you’ve never ever heard of him is because his superpower is making sure all the other heroes stay super. And safe. Supersafe. And he does it all on the hush. That’s right—it’s a secret.
Guy Lockard, the primary reader for the audiobook, reads these lines with such vim; “HIM” bursts out, and, though I can picture easily how the Raul the Third may have drawn our introduction to Portico, I didn’t need the illustrations to have a tremendous sensory experience with this book.
Portico spends his days hanging out with his best friend, Zola Brawner, avoiding the bully Herbert Singletary (THE WORST), and keeping folks in the apartment building (and the cat, named New Name Every Day) safe from danger. While this is a breezy tale, full of adventure, it is also a moving story of how Portico manages anxiety, using his alter ego and relying on his best friend to help him translate anxiety into understanding and action. Further, his parents argue a lot, and are clearly separating, so the conflict in the story is real and heartbreaking. Reynolds handles these big (and common) issues with a deft touch, framing Portico’s anxiety as ‘the frets,’ using word play to give Portico language to talk about what’s happening with his parents (when arguing, his parents send him to Zola’s apartment ‘in the meantime,’ which he rephrases as the ‘mean time’), and using a favorite TV space odyssey cartoon to reframe what is going on in his life.
Reynolds does a wonderful job of capturing a Black boy on the cusp of becoming a teenager; he’s still sweet, clearly adores his parents, and his relationship with Zola is silly and full of the private language and quiet moments of a true best friendship. While we know there is a world outside the castle, for now, the castle is everything to Portico, and that frame contains the story charmingly. Again, with the glorious wordplay: “A giant castle of rectangles made from the glassiest glass and the brickiest bricks on Earth.” And then picture that sentence read by Lockard with vigor and delight and that is the experience of the audiobook. Lockard has great support from an ensemble of readers and the production is remarkable.
To close, although the topics of anxiety and bullying and divorce are heavy, there is so much warmth and wit in this (audio)book. My 9 year old was very cautious in the beginning, but soon he was laughing and obviously enjoying the jokes and he brought up some of the issues later, including a friend’s anxiety and the feeling of being bullied during soccer this year, which I think was primed by hearing Portico’s story.