Alan Cole Is Not a Coward
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Alan Cole’s life isn’t spectacular. At school, he sits with a couple kids at the Unstable Table, but he’s not really friends with them–or anyone else, for that matter. At home, he does his best to keep his head down to avoid the wrath of his disapproving father and the notice of his psychopathic brother, Nathan. And then there’s some budding feelings of his own, including a crush on a particular boy in his class…
But when Nathan gets ahold of him one evening, he proposes the competition to end all competitions: both brothers will attempt to complete seven impossible tasks in a week. The prizes are lucrative and the stakes are high, but Alan is determined to win. So what if he has to learn how to swim and get his first kiss? It’ll be easy, right?
This book was a major surprise. A friend of mine is friends with Eric Bell, the author, and we went to his signing a few weeks ago. I didn’t know much about the book going into it, but reading the cover I knew it was perfect for reviewing here. I had high hopes…
And I wasn’t disappointed.
The voices in the book are authentic, from the way Alan narrates the story to Zack’s random outbursts. Since I work with middle-school students, I’m always wary about the voices in fiction. Bell, however, writes the characters in such a way that I was actually assigning students to the roles. It make the book immersive and real for me in the best way possible.
The school itself was realistic, too. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been reading a book set in a school and needed to stop to complain about how the author obviously hasn’t been inside one for years. I won’t make any guesses as to which particular district this was based on, but Bell obviously did his research when writing. And yes, the grade-level names sometimes ARE as silly as the one he uses. Not gonna lie, I’m with Alan on this one.
I also appreciated Bell’s treatment of Alan’s burgeoning understanding of his own sexuality. It was genuine and sweet without being saccharine or the focus of the entire story. Alan’s crush on Connor was written just the same as if he’d had a crush on a female classmate, and I liked the juxtaposition of that against Zack’s own crush. I did find Alan’s actions towards the end to be interesting; he was far more up front than most seventh graders I know would be, despite the stakes. At the same time, it didn’t entirely come from left field; there were enough hints that Alan could be outspoken and a leader that his actions made sense in context of the story.
The messages about being true to yourself were treated well in the book. There were a few Important Thematic Quotes that were borderline didactic, but in context they made enough sense to the story that I’ll forgive them. I also liked that it wasn’t only adults giving life lessons, but rather other kids, too. It’s always nice when an author acknowledges that kids can be wise, too.
You’ll notice I haven’t said much about Alan’s father or brother here. I’m not entirely sure how I stand on their portrayal. The bullying that goes on is heart-wrenching and realistic, though I’m not completely convinced that Nathan could behave the way he does without getting called out on it sooner. He still needed some serious therapy, even at the end of the book. I never quite understood why their mother didn’t stand up for herself more. I know about spousal abuse and everything, but I never quite got the feeling that the mother was actually mousy back in the day or why she became as nervous as she was. Similarly, I’m not convinced that the father’s past “justified” his treatment of his wife and sons. Something that stuck out to me was how he could be so accepting of Nathan’s music but disregard Alan’s art. At any rate, he’s another one who could benefit from counseling. Actually, the entire family could.
Despite that (and a tough slog through the second chapter, where I kept wanting to dive in and end the senseless bullying), this is an awesome book that I’d definitely have on my middle-grade shelf. The voices are hilarious (Bell has a way with similes), the setting is realistic, and I can’t wait for the upcoming sequel to see what happens next!
In turns funny and poignant, Alan Cole Is Not a Coward is the perfect addition to any middle-grade library.
- Kids who like realistic fiction
- Kids who feel trapped in everyone’s expectations
- Kids with annoying siblings
- Bullying: characters bully others physically and verbally
- Death: references to death
- Deceit: characters trick one another try to make themselves look good
- Lying: characters lie to try to get what they want
- Other Illegal Activity: sabotage
- Prejudice: characters use slurs
- Religion: references to Christian ceremonies and practices
- Shaming: characters try to make others feel bad for who they are
- Swearing: very minor
- Theft: characters take things from others
- Verbal Abuse: characters regularly insult and belittle others
- Violence: physical altercations between characters
- Growing Up
- Right vs. Wrong
- Romantic Love
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