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Dead Ends Paperback – January 26, 2016
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“Lange deftly blends big issues (bullying, special needs, abuse) into a story of two imperfect, memorable characters. For similar reads, try Alex Flinn's novels Breathing Underwater (2001), about male aggression, and Fade to Black (2005), about Down syndrome.” ―Booklist
“Lange writes realistically about teens with rough lives, and readers will believe in the friendships, feel Billy's pain of abandonment, and appreciate the honesty of the not-tied-up-with-a-bow ending.” ―School Library Journal
“Lange weaves a beautiful and believable tale of friendship for readers of any age who can appreciate the challenges of everyday life.” ―Library Media Connection
About the Author
Erin Jade Lange is the author of Dead Ends and Butter, an ABC New Voices selection, writes facts by day and fiction by night. As a journalist, she is inspired by current events and real-world issues and uses her writing to explore how those issues impact teenagers. She is an only child, which means she spent a lot of time entertaining herself as a kid. This required her to rely heavily on her own imagination, which is probably why she became a writer. Erin lives in Phoenix, Arizona.
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Dead Ends is definitely a character-first story. Though the plot itself is cute (Downs boy tries to find his dad by way of clues in an old atlas), it would be nothing without Dane and Billy D. Dane is our narrator, a tough-as-nails kid with a quick wit and quicker punches. He has all the trappings necessary to pull off the bully stereotype: an absent father, a low socioeconomic status, and a hair-trigger temper. He’s a big kid with bigger fists who loves taking from the haves and making them have-nots.
Of course, it’s not that simple, as Dane proves on page one, the very first time he meets Billy D. Billy accidentally interrupts Dane’s beat-down on the sidewalk of his neighborhood, and though Dane threatens him if he doesn’t keep moving, our resident bully acknowledges it’s an empty threat. He might be a punk with an attitude problem but hey, he’s got standards. No matter how far Dane might sink, he doesn’t beat up girls, and he doesn’t beat up special ed kids.
He runs Billy off, but not for long. Billy is fascinated by his new neighbor, this tough, swaggering kid that no one dares mess with. He starts following Dane to and from school, convinced that if he walks with Dane, no one will pick on him. (That Dane might pick on him never seems to cross his mind, even as Dane does just that.) When the principal hears about their walks, he offers Dane a deal: watch out for Billy and Dane will remain on the principal’s good side until graduation. Refuse, and it’s only a matter of time until Dane’s fighting gets him kicked out. So Dane and Billy D form a reluctant partnership (reluctant on Dane’s end only) that grows from walks home and fighting lessons to interstate hunts for lost fathers and so much more.
I fell in love with Billy D from his first appearance. It would be so easy to turn the one Downs character in the book into a freaking angel with childish innocence and homespun moral advice for every occasion. Instead, what we get is a sometimes awkward, always sassy boy with something to prove.
I turned toward my own house and was halfway there when his voice rang out again.
“Your clothes don’t match!”
I spun around. He had his arms folded across his chest in a smug gesture. This, he must have thought, was the final word in insults.
As the book progresses, we learn more about both boys, a process that I thoroughly enjoyed. Despite his thugish ways and cliched backstory, Dane spends a good deal of the book debunking the literary tropes that surround bullies. Instead of being a hulking neanderthal with knuckles for brains, Dane works hard and maintains solid grades in all his classes. He has an absent dad, but he also has a loving, hard-working mom with a penchant for lottery tickets. Most importantly (and, in my opinion, most realistically), Dane doesn’t think of himself as a bully. In his mind, each of his attacks are provoked. Someone insulted him, targeted him, bullied him. All he’s doing is retaliating. Watching Dane grapple with the consequences of his actions in this story makes for a fantastic read.
In the same way, Billy transitions from being “the funny, sassy Downs boy” to something more complex. He’s still funny, sassy, and completely Billy, but he’s also obsessive, annoying, and a dang good manipulator. Though Billy might be considered more quintessentially good-hearted than Dane, don’t go trying to hang a halo on this kid. More than once, Dane gets burned by Billy and his innocent face, and I felt his frustration like it was my own. Who’s going to believe the neighborhood roughneck over the do-no-wrong special ed kid with a heart of gold? (However, I do admit to laughing out loud the first – but not last! – time he pulled one over on Dane.)
The other characters in this story are less nuanced but still interesting. We meet the moms, Dane’s and Billy’s, and watch the boys work through their complicated relationships with their only parent. Dane’s mom is especially interesting. She has an uncanny knack for picking winning lottery tickets (usually little ones) but refuses to cash them in, saying that she’ll use up her luck if she does. It’s a quirk I’ve never encountered in my books before, so it made for a fun twist. Billy’s mother, on the other hand, is played straight. She’s a hard, suspicious woman with a tight line for a mouth and narrowed eyes, but Ms. Lange fleshes her out, if a bit predictably, by the end. Dane and Billy also gain an ally in their quest to find Billy’s dad, a punk-haired skateboarder chick named Seely. I never really connected with Seely, but others may like her. She’s different from the long-haired, sweet-faced preps that most commonly appear in fiction, and I did find her mechanical prowess refreshing.
Still, despite the supporting characters and their varying degrees of depth, this is Dane and Billy’s story through and through, and it’s a story that encompasses so much more than bullying and “Downs kids are people, too!” morals. We learn about family, friendship, dads who are missing, dads who should stay missing, and the complicated consequences of unconditional love. It’s good stuff and not always easy to read.
Despite a few nitpicky concerns (what was Mark’s reason for being, anyways?), I thoroughly enjoyed Dead Ends. It hit a sweet spot in my little bookish heart that I didn’t even know I had, and I would love to be able to revisit Dane and Billy D in the future. Their friendship – once reluctant, sometimes frustrating, but always true – will go down as one of my favorite literary friendships of all time. And to think it all started with a beat-down on a sidewalk and a spot of blackmail.
Favorite Non-Spoilery Quote:
I’d always said that I didn’t hit girls or challenged kids, and what it came to a fight between the two, I didn’t know which side I’d pick – I’d probably just stay out of it. But when it came to anybody versus Billy, there was no question whose side I was on.
Points Added For: Billy D, maps, Dane, nonstereotypical characters, loving mothers
Points Subtracted For: Mark (seriously, why does he exist?), Dane being dense at times
Good For Fans Of: Buddy stories (book or movie), fun geography trivia
Notes For Parents: Language, suggestive puns, kissing. The word “retard” is also used multiple times but is always portrayed as an offensive word used by crass people.
Note: I received a copy of this title from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Although I would really love to see Billy's perspective of the story.
This book just happens to be the best book I have ever read and I'm sure it always will be.
I recommend it to ages 10 and over as this book does not have suitable language for any age under 10.
Thank you so much Erin Lange for writing this book it is truly life changing and I could probably not live without it.