CM . . .
. Volume XIX Number 34. . . .May 3, 2013
The town of Drayton, population 25,000, is the setting for author Brad Cowan’s, Street Kings. Drayton is not a rural town far removed from city lights and influences. It’s more like a bedroom community, with the big city just an hour away by car. The location will prove to be important as the main protagonist finds his way to the big city for a night he’ll never forget.
Twelve-year-old Cale Finch lives in Drayton and spends all of his spare time doing what he loves best to do, skateboarding. He hangs out with a group of guys who call themselves The Seven Stair Crew (SCC for short), and whose home skateboarding turf is the Drayton Plaza. Josh, Skylar, and Ryan are 13; JT is 14 and the leader of the group. While Cale is a good skater and is allowed to hang out with them, he is not a full-fledged member of the crew. To be a member, one must have ollied the gnarliest obstacle located in the plaza, the seven stairs. Cale tried once, with disastrous results.
Cale is a planner. He makes maps, and he plans out what he’s going to do and how he’s going to do it. Now it’s spring break, and his plans include just three things: eat, sleep, skate with friends. However, things don’t quite go according to plan.
On the first day of spring break, he arrives at the plaza psyched, ready to try the stairs again. Two things get in his way. First, there’s the notice about the contest. That’s when readers discover Cale is so intimidated by JT he can’t even answer a question put to him about whether he’ll enter the contest or not. In fact, Cale is easily intimidated by anyone older than he, or anyone who is aggressive in any way. Second: when he does successfully ollie the stairs, he’s told all four members of the crew must witness the feat for it to count, and Ryan is away. His attempt was supposedly filmed, but Josh tells him the ancient camera he uses to film the guys doing tricks quit before Josh got the crucial shot. So there’s nothing to show Ryan for proof when he returns, and Cale is still not a member of the crew.
Cale’s passion for skating has also led to his association with a 17-year-old named Mark, who works in the local skate board shop and encourages younger skaters. Mark invites the Seven Stair Crew to join him and some other 16 and 17-year-olds in a jaunt to the city for a night of skating. But only Cale and JT decide to go.
Because Cale’s sure his mother will not agree with the plan, he lies and says he’s spending the night at JT’s. JT easily backs up the lie to Cale’s mom. En route to the city in the back of a pick-up truck, the impact of his lie hits Cale hard when he realizes his mother might call JT’s mother to check on things, and JT’s mother knows nothing about it. JT blows off the younger boy’s concern and demonstrates to Cale for the second time how adept he is at lying. When they arrive in the city, D-Mac, the driver of the truck, announces he is heading back to Drayton at 12:30 a.m. sharp, and anyone who gets separated from the group and isn’t back at the truck by then will be left behind.
The combination of Cale’s lie, D-Mac’s announcement regarding the only way the boys have to get back home, and the fact that neither Cale nor JT knows the city at all serve to heighten the reader’s concern for what is going to happen to young Cale. What does happen next is really no surprise.
Skateboarders have a reputation for skating in places they are not welcome to skate. There’s good reason for that, and the boys are chased away from one location and move on to the next. That’s when serious trouble hits. At Central Station, there’s an accident that involves property destruction, the police, and a wild escape. Cale’s instinct is the right one—go to the police and explain what happened. But he’s talked out of it by JT.
This is the fastest-paced section of the book; it is also where plot and characterization begin to break down. The first credibility gap occurs when Mark, who has been set up as a role model who cares about the younger boys, takes off with all of the older boys when the accident occurs, abandoning Cale and JT completely to their own devices though he knows they don’t know the city at all.
The next problem area is Cale’s overall reaction to the events. The original damage done by the skateboarders in the city is only the beginning of what goes wrong. Something even more serious occurs, and the reader is told it is something Cale will never forget. It’s realistic that a 12-year-old does not tell his mother something really bad that happens when he’s doing something he shouldn’t be. But while the reader has been primed to understand Cale is a boy who does not have the confidence to speak up for himself or for others, the reader has also been primed to believe Cale has good instincts and a close enough relationship with his mother that it bothers him considerably that he has lied to her about where he’s going and what he’s doing that night. He confesses the lie the first chance he gets. Yet, he has no thought to tell her the terrible event that happens because of him; in fact there is no evidence he ever thinks about it again. Nor does the reader hear about the incident again. There simply are no consequences to what the boys did, or the worst event of the night that happened because of them. The whole thing just vanishes off the page. Nor does Cale suffer any consequences for what he does confess.
Cale’s mother tells him he could have been killed riding in an open truck bed, and it will take a long time for him to regain her full trust. However, she imposes no conditions that show diminished trust. Instead, her concern shifts entirely away from his deception when Cale describes JT’s mother, who is mean, and JT’s living conditions, which are terrible, to her.
Cale continues his skateboarding activities as before, and the next problem is raised: a rival skateboarding gang, the Mental Posse, takes over the Drayton plaza and causes The Seven Stair Crew considerable grief.
The rivals are the stereotypical “bad guys”, right down to their all-black ‘uniforms’ of hoodies and pants. They destroy things for the sake of destruction, and they cheat to win. They, of course, will be The Seven Stair Crew’s main competition at the Street Kings contest on March 14th.
There are stories, such as Marsha Skrypuch’s Last Airlift and Deborah Ellis’ Parvana’s Journey where strong plotlines can carry a book. Cowan, the author, has a definite handle on the skateboarding culture and an intimate knowledge of the sport. The story is fairly fast-paced with events following one after the other in rapid succession. The writing is clear and the language used is appropriate for a YA audience. That said, though, this is the first in Cowan’s “Seven Stair Crew” series, the plotlines are predictable and full of loose ends that don’t indicate directions future books might take.
The first is the city escapade. Another is the introduction of Angie. There are indications she’s interested in Cale and he’s interested in her. But this storyline doesn’t go anywhere, and Angie seems an unnecessary convention that adds nothing to the book.
A reader’s focus will always be the main character and what happens to him or her, and that character must be strong enough to engage and hold the reader’s interest throughout. There must also be an antagonist of equal strength.
Though several potential antagonists are introduced, the only real antagonist turns out to be Cale’s lack of confidence in himself. Through the book, he learns lessons, good and bad. On the bad side, he learns how to lie, how to avoid taking responsibility for his actions, and that there are no consequences for bad behavior. Neither the boys who go to the city, including Cale, or the Mental Posse suffer any consequences for what they do. On the good side, Cale sees that some people, in this case JT, have very difficult lives, and he has empathy for them. Finally, Cale learns to block out negative influences during a time of high stress, relax and enjoy himself, and follow his plan.
In the end, this is a coming-of-age story where the main character doesn’t really come of age. Cale’s lack of confidence lacks punch. It doesn’t cause him any real grief, he does not struggle against very difficult odds to overcome it, and he only does overcome it in one respect. He does several tricks before the contest day that earn him praise from skaters he admires, and from the beginning he has the confidence to skate with the bigger boys. On the day of the contest, the Mental Posse shows up, but they play a very minor part. And that’s the arena Cale conquers: learning that enjoying his passion leads to success when he competes. In the wider realm of standing up for himself or for someone else against difficult odds, readers don’t see any change. In the beginning, readers are told Cale has empathy for Toby (whose father puts on the Street Kings contest), whom JT puts down. But Cale never defends Toby out loud. And while his attitude toward JT does change, there is no effort required on his part for that change to occur.
Recommended with reservations.
Jocelyn Reekie is a writer, editor and publisher in Campbell River, BC.
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