By IRENE PANIS
Young Adult Fiction is simply not everyone’s cup of tea. For many, a typical YA novel would be something reminiscent of The Hunger Games or Divergent, filled to the brim with multiple-page-long action scenes, contrived forbidden romances and cliché tropes including but not limited to being “the chosen one.”
But, The Heartbeats of Wing Jones singlehandedly proves that the YA genre is much more than that.
Written by UHS alumna Katherine Webber, the novel follows teenage girl Wing Jones, who finds solace in running after a car accident leaves her older brother, Marcus, in a coma.
Wing Jones’s focus on family is primarily what sets it apart from the typical YA novel. Throughout the book, Wing makes mention of Marcus at least once every chapter and doesn’t let herself or the reader forget that all that she is does is for him and the rest of her family. To Wing, family comes first. It is not put on the backburner in favor of grand adventures or infatuating love interests. She runs because she believes it’s what’s keeping Marcus alive. She runs because it might just be the one thing that will keep her family off the streets. Nothing more, nothing less.
There is one instance in the book, however, where Wing’s determination slightly falters as she becomes increasingly enamored with Marcus’ best friend, Aaron. Realizing that Aaron is a distraction that might prevent her from earning a coveted sponsorship, Wing chooses to distance herself. This decision might have been heartbreaking for readers looking for a cute romance to root for, but I personally liked it. Too often are YA protagonists willing to drop everything for a love interest, which is something I always found to be not only annoying but also detrimental to the storyline as a whole.
The diversity in Wing Jones is truly nothing short of praiseworthy. The one thing that stuck out to me the most was how Webber did not refrain from mentioning the characters’ races. If characters were black, Webber said they were black. If they were Chinese, Webber said they were Chinese. It was new but in an refreshing kind of way. Unlike other YA novels, there was no racial ambiguity. If the characters hadn’t been explicitly stated to be Chinese, black, etc., many readers–myself included, unfortunately–would have just assumed that everyone was white. I think Webber’s decision to describe her characters the way she did was a response to that.
The novel includes both interracial and same-sex relationships as well. It is commendable enough as it is, but Webber also makes a point to acknowledge the prejudiced attitudes that people hold towards them. The truth is, not everyone is going to be treated equally, especially if one veers too far away from what is considered socially acceptable. And in 1995 Georgia, the story’s setting, interracial and same-sex relationships were definitely not socially acceptable. As heartbreaking and infuriating as it is, it’s a realistic depiction of both the times and the location.
Wing is a strong, admirable character with a realistic yet eloquent voice, but I found the most enjoyment in reading the interactions between Granny Dee and LaoLao, Wing’s grandmothers. The pair have maybe one or two civil conversations in the entire book; the rest is spent bickering over mundane things like shrunken sweaters. The two are seemingly drastically different from each other, but in reality are two sides of the same coin. They are funny and lovable, and they offer the best pieces of dialogue in the book.
Overall, I enjoyed Wing Jones, although the plot really only picked up for me about a hundred pages in. I’m still undecided on whether or not I liked that aspect of it; maybe the build-up was a smart choice and I’m just an impatient reader. But I did like the second half of the book a lot, especially once the sponsorship story arc was introduced and the focus on female friendship became more prominent.
Wing Jones may not be all action sequences and passionate romances, but it is the kind of book that teaches life lessons about family, ambition, decision-making and grief. And that, I think, is what really makes it valuable.
The Heartbeats of Wing Jones is rated 4.2 out of 5 stars on Goodreads and is available on Amazon for $11.64 and at Barnes & Noble for $17.99.