Book Review: Twerp by Mark Goldblatt
In Twerp, a children’s book aimed at middle-grade readers, life is full of friends, fun, hard choices, and consequences. Main character Julian Twerski, age 12, lives in a close-knit Queens neighborhood in 1969. His best buddies are the guys from the block, and their favorite hangout is the vacant lot which they dub Ponzini. Back in Ponzini, they kid around, goof off, and get into all sorts of mischief, big and small. But when a seemingly harmless prank goes wrong, the six boys get a week’s suspension from school. In the aftermath, Julian makes a deal with his English teacher: He’ll write a journal about what happened, and in exchange, he gets out of having to read Julius Caesar.
And boy, does Julian want to get out of reading Julius Caesar:
So when I say I hate Shakespeare, I mean it. Lots of guys say they hate him, and what they mean is they hate the stuff he writes. But I don’t only hate the stuff he writes. I hate Shakespeare for writing the stuff. I hate the guy, William Shakespeare. If I met him on the street, I’d just keep walking. Because you know, you just know, while he was writing the stuff he was writing, he was thinking how clever he was. He was sitting at his desk, writing the words, and he could’ve just said what he meant, but instead he prettied it up until it could mean everything or it could mean nothing or it could mean whatever the teacher says it means. That just drives me bananas. So if keeping this thing going gets me out of Julius Caesar, then count me in.
Twerp is Julian’s journal, in which he writes with a clear-eyed honesty about friendship, hopes, girls, doing favors, and all the everyday worries that come with being a sixth-grader. In Julian’s world, being loyal to friends is probably the most important thing of all, and his best friend Lonnie is a gem of a guy — totally loyal, incredibly funny, and with a big heart and tons of charisma. The ups and downs of their friendship include a fiasco over a girl (of course), an all-important track and field competition, and a long-delayed reckoning for their misdeeds and suspension.
Through it all, we see Julian contemplate the big picture. Where does he fit in — at school, in the neighborhood, in life? What does it mean to have good intentions? And are good intentions enough, if people end up hurt anyway?
Twerp is both a lovely nostaglic look at a time gone by and an ageless peek into the heart and mind of a boy figuring out what it takes to grow up into a decent sort of person. Author Mark Goldblatt captures the feel of a Queens neighborhood, with the boys hanging out on the stoops, wandering the blocks, knowing all the characters of their own small world. The boys and their parents fully inhabit this time and place, and readers are treated to a sweet-tasting view of boyhood. It’s a time before electronic gadgets and distractions, so fun is found in climbing walls, playing cards, chasing balls, creating diversions.
At the same time, by looking into Julian’s thoughts, we see a boy with a good heart who takes seriously the question of how to be a good person. He makes mistakes, it’s true, but through his journal, he comes to see the how and why of his mistakes and to understand what it takes to do the right thing. Julian is clearly a very smart boy, and his gift with words and his speed on the school track help ensure his success at school, both with teachers and with other kids. As the book progresses, we see Julian work through his guilt over his role in the event that got him suspended and ultimately take ownership for what he did and what he still must do in order to move on.
Perhaps that makes Twerp sound a bit preachy, and that’s not at all the case. Julian’s voice is light and often funny, and it never feels like a stretch to imagine that we’re really reading the words of a 12-year-old. The book flows smoothly, and the writing hits just the right mix of childish obstinance and adolescent insight.
Julian and his friends have an easy camaraderie and a sense of glee, which makes them quite fun to spend time with through the pages of Twerp. Twerp may not fit the popular mold of middle-grade books filled with secret worlds, mythological beings, and superpowers, but it’s a book that I could easily see a smart, eager reader enjoying quite a bit. No gimmicks and nothing flashy here — just a good, honest story of a boy, his friends, and his world. It may be a world that seems old-fashioned to a kid of today, but the underlying messages about friendship and doing what’s right are timeless.
Review copy courtesy of Random House via NetGalley.