Criss Cross, a Newberry Medal winner from Lynn Rae Perkins, begins with the sentence, “She wished something would happen.”
This sentence is followed up with a meandering story, told from the perspective of six different adolescents across the span of one summer. Nothing dramatic happens to any of them. None of them end up dating each other. Anticlimax carries the day…and yet Perkins manages to eek poignancy out of their mundane summer.
I’ve heard lots of complaints about Criss Cross’s “plotless-ness.” It has the lowest Goodread‘s ranking of all Newbery winners in the past ten years, pulling in just 3.22 stars, and most of the readers who have given it a low ranking blame its plot (or lack thereof) for their censure.
This is what I have to say about that…
Writing a “plotless” book is one of the bravest and truest things an author can do.
If there is one danger that books pose to their readers, it is the creation of a sense that “things should be happening” all the time. Romances should be blossoming, struggling, or dying. You should be grappling with your enemies or inner demons. A whirlwind trip to another country is likely to fall into your lap at any moment.
But that’s not the way life is.
Life is not always action-packed. Life does not always follow a forward trajectory. More often than not, we are in a lull. More often than not, we feel aimless.
Criss Cross dares to enter that lull with us, dares to share our aimlessness. It captures the longing of a girl who “wishes something would happen.” It refrains from making us compare ourselves to heroes who are on danger-fraught journeys of self-discovery. It doesn’t gloss over the slow journey that led up to–or interrupted–the fast one. It doesn’t leave out “the fluff.”
And by embracing the plotless-ness of human life, Criss Cross celebrates all of its subtle beauty and intricate development.
We see crushes gently unfolding–and sometimes closing back up again without ever coming to fruition. We hike down into a drainage ditch that seems, nonetheless, magical in a way. We hear a non-prodigy pluck at a guitar. We experience the pangs of a tween and her mother trying to shop for clothes together. We get to read a whole chapter of haikus because why not? This is real. This is how the human mind entertains itself when it has nothing else to do.
We should write more books without plots. And read more books without plots. Maybe if we did, we would be better at appreciating our own meandering lives. Maybe if we did, we would feel less alone.