Last week I read two books back to back in order to do this very special double dog dare review.
Both books use roughly the same device to move the story forward – a set of dares that propels the protagonist(s) and pushes them into new territory.
Here’s the cover copy for 13 Little Blue Envelopes:
Would you follow the directions?
Would you travel around the world?
Would you open the envelopes one by one?
Inside little blue envelope 1 are $1,000 and instructions to buy a plane ticket.
In envelope 2 are directions to a specific London flat.
The note in envelope 3 tells Ginny: Find a starving artist.
Because of envelope 4, Ginny and a playwright/thief/bloke-about-town called Keith go to Scotland together, with somewhat disastrous – though utterly romantic – results. But will she ever see him again?
Everything about Ginny will change this summer, and it’s all because of the 13 little blue envelopes.
I found this book at my used bookstore and was intrigued by this back copy. To me, it sounded like a stranger had sent the envelope – and that Ginny must be a bit of a dare-devil to go on this adventure.
Reminder to self – back cover copy is designed to sell a book, not tell you what’s in it.
First – Ginny does not get these envelopes from a mysterious stranger. She gets them from her aunt. Her dead aunt. Her dead, eccentric, wild aunt – who disappeared without so much as a goodbye or fare thee well and didn’t resurface until she was knocking on death’s door.
Second – Ginny is most assuredly NOT a risk taking daredevil. No, no, no. She is a shy, quiet, introverted rule follower.
Which on one hand works perfectly for this book – who else but a rule follower would actually follow the rules of this game – only opening one envelope at a time, after the last task/dare is completed. Only packing what the first letter says to pack – as if there will be consequences for disobeying your dead aunt…
But Ginny does follow the rules. And that is important.
Harder to overcome was my disbelief that such a rule follower would go on this journey to begin with, that Ginny would convince her parents to let her and that she would be bold enough to get on that first plane. After that, the book becomes more believable, because after that step is taken, what else is there but to carry on?
That said – I did enjoy this book and I am looking forward to passing it down to my oldest daughter who is currently saving money for a trip to Paris (and, I hope a trip around the rest of Europe while she’s there.)
Reading 13 Little Blue Envelopes is like taking a Eurail pass through Europe, without ever leaving the couch.
Some of the pleasure of this book for me was entirely personal. I too remember the first time I was offered Ribena – on my first stay in Scotland. And I too was not warned that it was highly concentrated “juice”. I also remember my first shower in England, when I was 13. I was shivering, naked in the shower, completely unable to figure out how to make the water hot! I had to call my friend in to explain to me how all the tubes and knobs and buttons worked. Reading Ginny’s adventures was like a flashback of embarrassment. I remember feeling so amazed that the country that gave birth to mine could be so different, that a language I thought I knew and spoke fluently could be so foreign.
Ginny learns a lot on her adventures, about herself and also about the way the world works.
When BudgetAir said the plane would land in Rome, they weren’t being literal. What they meant to say was, :The plane will land in Italy; that much we guarantee. The rest is up to you.” Ginny found herself in a small airport that clearly wasn’t Rome’s main hub.
Following her aunt’s footsteps forces Ginny to use all of her resources, to take risks she would never take otherwise – and to find ways out of all the trouble her aunt gets her into. Like when her aunt tells her to ask a Roman boy out for gelato, “because Roman boys are some of the most amusing creatures on earth.”
Along with the great travel and adventure, this book is really YA at its core – that coming of age, personal awakening, self-discovery book.
Ginny knows who she is at the start (don’t all teens know everything?) but as the book progresses we see her discover new pieces of herself, and old pieces that she’s buried. Adding the additional layer of having to learn new ways in new lands – and discovering that things you thought were universal are actually specific to your life or your country was really a brilliant way to shine a little extra light on the changes we all go through as we enter new stages of our life.
Ginny agrees to go to a pub with Keith, but ever cautious, she follows behind him until,
“You don’t have to follow me,” he said. “We’re a very advanced country. Girls can walk beside men, go to school, everything.”
I liked Keith’s wit and snark. His way of seeing the world as wide open and ripe for the picking, so different from Ginny’s innocent and naive starting point.
She sipped her Guinness to buy herself a second before answering, then tried not to wince or spit. Ginny had never tasted tree bark, but this was what she imagined it would be like if you ran it through a juicer.
I also loved the tone of the book and the juxtaposition between Ginny and her starving artist, Keith. Her reserved, careful nature and his anything goes, good for a laugh attitude.
Keith stepped over onto the next grave, which was a flat stone on the ground. He started to jump around and flail his arms.
“What are you doing?” Ginny asked.
“I’m dancing on this guy’s grave. You always hear about people dancing on your grave, but no one ever does it.”
I liked that he pushed her and challenged her – and she pushed and challenged him right back.
In the end, Ginny discovers that even rule followers can have adventures, and even eccentric artists who seem to go missing right when you need them most have rules. But the biggest lesson for Ginny, and for all teens is that, when push comes to shove, we already have what it takes to be great, sometimes we just need our back against the wall before we realize it.
Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan came next.
I met David Levithan at this year’s Colorado Teen Lit Conference, but I’ve read books by both him and Rachel Cohn previously. I use one of Rachels’ books in my YA sex & pregnancy workshops and often reference David’s in both my YA sex and YA gender workshops.
I admit, I like this device – of using dares to push a character – or set of characters forward. It’s fun.
In Dash & Lily, both characters end up doing things that are out of character, things they would NEVER, EVER do without a push from their daring counterpart. But in each instance, we see the decision being made. We see their struggle to break out of themselves and accept the dare. We see their doubt, their fear – and ultimately their determination. We see them choose the potential benefit of keeping up the game. To me, that made all the difference. I knew what both Dash and Lily wanted from their game. I also enjoyed the back and forth of Dash & Lily and the morphing of the game from straight dares to something closer to Truth or Dare.
So, the cover copy for Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares:
I’ve left some clues for you.
If you want them, turn the page.
If you don’t, put the book back on the shelf, please.
Lily has left a red notebook full of challenges on a favorite bookstore shelf, waiting for just the right guy to come along and accept the dares. But is Dash that right guy? Or are Dash and Lily only destined to trade dares, dreams, and desires in the notebook they pass back and forth at locations across New York? Could their in-person selves possibly connect as well as their notebook versions? Or will they be a comic mismatch of disastrous proportions?
So, in this case – Dash and Lily really do start out as strangers. Because of this the dares begin in a gentle fashion with Lily leading her mystery partner into the game slowly, step by step.
Dash completes the first set of dares, but then – he breaks the rules. Instead of delivering his email address and returning the notebook, he delivers a dare.
Two, I decided, could play this game.
And so it begins, with Dash and Lily taking turns exchanging the red notebook with a new set of clues and dares each time. Along the way they get to know not only each other, but also themselves. There are dares of self-reflection and discovery, and dares that challenge them both to stretch outside their comfort zones.
Snarl (That’s Lily’s name for Dash because he won’t tell her his real name.) Snarl must have had me under some kind of spell because sneaking out in the middle of the night, on Christmas night no less, to a dive club on the Lower East Side was about the last dare that pre-notebook Lily ever would have taken on. But somehow, knowing the Moleskine was tucked away in my bag, containing our thoughts and clues, our imprints to each other, somehow that made me feel safe, like I could have this adventure and not get lost and not call my brother to save me. I could do this on my own, and not freak out that I had no idea what waited for me on the other side of this night.
Lily and Dash are wonderfully, delightfully different. Lily LOVES Christmas, more than just about anything. She loves it so much, she even wanted to become a Salvation Army bell-ringer.
Mom said no. She said those bell people are possibly religious freaks, and we are holiday-only lapsed Catholics who support homosexuality and a woman’s right to choose. We do not stand outside Macy’s begging for money.
Dash on the other hand, well, I’ll let Dash speak for himself.
This was the miracle of the season, the way it put the fuck off so loud in our hearts. You could snap at strangers, or snap at the people closest to you. It could be a fuck off for a slight reason – you took my parking space or You questioned my choice of mittens or I spent sixteen hours tracking down the golf club you wanted and you gave me a McDonald’s gift certificate in return. Or it could bring out the fuck off that’d been lying in wait for years. You always insist on cutting the turkey even though I’m the one who spent hours cooking it or I can’t spend one more holiday pretending to be in love with you or You want me to inherit your love for booze and women, in that order, but you’re more of a role anti-model than a father.
One of the best things about Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares are the quiet, sneaky moments of revelation.
It was Christmas Eve, and I had nowhere to be. I kicked off my shoes. Then I kicked off my pants. Amused by this, I took off my shirt. And my underwear. I walked from room to room, naked as the day I was born, only without the blood and amniotic fluid. It was strange – I’d been home alone plenty of times before, but I’d never walked around naked.
So, maybe this passage struck me so strongly because I’ve always been a bit of a nudist at heart. Or maybe it’s because my own kids are reaching that age where they aren’t so comfortable being naked anymore and it breaks my heart… Or maybe it’s because it brought me back to my high school days and going camping alone in the woods – just for a chance to have this freedom again. And yes, the first time my parents left me alone for a weekend and I got out of the shower and realized… I was alone. I didn’t have to get dressed for anyone.
There is something amazing and empowering and silly and freeing in running around naked and… it is lost to us so much of the time.
There were other great revelations too, about being human and what we want, and what we need – and how we go about getting it.
If Lily wanted to believe there was somebody out there just for her, I wanted to believe I could be somebody in here just for me.
I love this dichotomy, one person looking outside for someone to fulfill them and the other wishing they could just fulfill themselves for a moment. I think we all struggle with those desires – wanting to just be left alone to take care of ourselves and not have to be anything for anyone else (especially as teens when the whole freaking world is coming down on us with their expectations and rules and ideas about who and what we should be.) and also wanting to find someone out there in this big crazy world who gets us. And really, they are two sides of the same coin. When we ask for someone to be there just for us – what I think we’re really asking for is to find someone who gives us the space, the encouragement, the support to just be ourselves and take care of ourselves and love ourselves. Someone who sees in us what we want to see in ourselves.
Throughout the book there are moments of deep wisdom and philosophy. Those questions and thoughts that I remember having so often as a teen – as I tried to piece the world together and bash it into some kind of sense.
It’s hard to answer a question you haven’t been asked. It’s hard to show that you tried unless you end up succeeding.
The last, great thing about this wonderful book was the supporting cast. Dash has an amazing collection of friends, frienemies and one knock-out ex-girlfriends. Lily has an amazing family. Together, they have everything two teens trying to figure out the world could need.
“When you see a flower painted by Georgia O’Keeffe, what comes to mind?”
“That’s just a transparent ploy to get me to say the word vagina, isn’t it? There. I’ve said it. Vagina.”
In the end, I have to say, I enjoyed Dash & Lily a little bit more than 13 Little Blue Envelopes – in part because I found the characters a little more believable – a little more true to themselves. As I said, I really struggled with believing that Ginny would go on the adventure her aunt sent her on. I needed more of her process and decision-making. Interestingly, it’s a line from Dash & Lily that made 13 Little Blue Envelopes work, that sold me on the story – The important people in our lives leave imprints. They may stay or go in the physical realm, but they are always there in your heart, because they helped form your heart. There’s no getting over that.
Ginny’s aunt was her guiding star, she was the force that allowed her to take risks and be bold and brave – and when she left, Ginny closed off that part of herself. Until 13 blue envelopes arrived to wake it back up.
I think both books are well worth reading. I’ve put 13 Little Blue Envelopes on top of my oldest’s “to read” stack and I’ve talked up Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares as well. Ultimately, I think my daughter will enjoy Ginny’s journey of self discovery and empowerment more right now, but as she starts becoming more interested in figuring out how to balance friendship and romance, truth and daring, Dash & Lily will probably climb the ranks.