Winger by Andrew Smith. 9781442444928. May 2013. Gr. 9-12.
Ryan Dean West, AKA Winger, is a boy with many typical adolescent male issues. However, he also has issues that present problems unique to him. He is a brilliant student, and has proven himself academically and become a 14-year old high school junior. He is also a star rugby player who is fast and tough and can compete with anyone. Unfortunately, he is not as skilled socially (the case with many boys his age) and he struggles with navigating life as a teenager.
Ryan attends Pine Mountain, an elite private school that Ryan Dean refers to a “rich kids’ school”. He is stuck in O-Hall, the “troublemakers” dorm, for stealing a cell phone. Here, he lives with some very colorful characters, including his roommate, the dim and muscular jock, Chas. Ryan excels at schoolwork, but his real loves are rugby and Annie Altman. He is good friends with the amiable Annie, and hopes to become more than friends, but fears that she views him as a little kid since he is a very young high-schooler. Due to his age, Ryan Dean finds himself having to prove himself in other areas as well, trying to fit in on the rugby pitch and in the adolescent male realm, where being physically small can be a hindrance.
His relationship with Annie is not the only complicated relationship Ryan Dean has to deal with. He faces hazing, bullying, betrayal, physical fights, and girl issues (beyond those with Annie). All of these make for a great story, and give author Andrew Smith a lot of material, but beyond that, I believe it is an authentic portrayal of relationships that adolescents have to navigate. Ryan Dean also has an openly gay friend, Joey, who is portrayed as an overall great guy, and I loved the fact that he is accepted by most of his peers for who he is, although discrimination against him does provide some major plotlines.
There is an edginess to Winger. Smith doesn’t shy away from describing the adolescent condition, warts and all. But I found most of the edginess to be done in a way that isn’t gratuitous. For example, there is plenty of swearing in Winger, but this is Ryan Dean’s written account of his life, and he writes that he makes a point of trying not to swear in conversation. His account serves as a kind of diary, and I believe it is a good message that shows what is acceptable in what time and place, and that people should be able to add anything to a private account of their lives. Similarly, the relationship between Ryan Dean and Annie is very innocent, but yet there is a lot of sexually-charged “guy talk” about girls. Much of this is typical adolescent bluster, yet Ryan Dean’s relationship with Annie is respectful and appropriate. In short, the edgy topics are moderated and balanced.
Winger is a fun read about growing up, making poor decisions and numerous mistakes, and weaving through all of the obstacles of adolescence. Here is a link to Andrew Smith’s blog, where he blogs about Winger, which is getting good reviews and acclaim all-around!
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