Author(s): Katherine Webber
Publisher: Walker Books
Publication date: 5th January 2017
Genre(s): contemporary, historical fiction
Series or standalone?: standalone
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Wing Jones has worshipped her older brother Marcus for as long as she can remember. Good-looking, popular, and the star of the football team, Marcus has made an asset of the Ghanaian-Chinese heritage that makes Wing stand out.
Then a drunk Marcus gets behind the wheel of a car after a party. With Marcus in a coma, Wing is tormented at school for his mistake and haunted at home by her grandmothers’ grief.
Unable to sleep, Wing finds herself sneaking out to run on her school’s empty track. When Aaron, Marcus’s best friend, sees her running, he recognizes that her speed and skill could get her spot on the track team – and maybe even a shot at a coveted sponsorship. Wing can’t pass up the opportunity to train with her longtime crush and to help pay Marcus’ medical bills, but can she handle being thrust out of Marcus’s shadow and into the spotlight?
One of my most anticipated reads of the year, it nevertheless took some time for me to get around to reading Wing Jones (more detail on that in my July reading check-in here). However, perhaps some distance from the hype (and you know how I feel about hype) was a good thing. It allowed a book I’d otherwise heard plenty about to spring a few surprises. It took me a while to get into the narrative as I found the writing style in the opening chapters very jerky and jagged, but rather like a runner finding their form, when the book hits its stride, it simply glides. Written with charm as well as drive, it’s gorgeously cinematic and would make for an awesome book-to-movie adaptation.
Wing Jones is, in many ways, typical ‘all-American’ YA: not only in setting, slang and sports, but in its petty high schoolers, crushing-on-older-brother’s-best-friend device, and familiar overarching formula. The added ingredients are of identity (Wing is biracial) with a dash of magical realism (her personal talismans, a lioness and a dragon, clearly represent the dual aspects of her heritage). Wing faces racism at school, but she’s proud of her heritage and her grandmothers, Granny Dee and LaoLao, are consistently present. If you’ve read Sarah Dessen’s Saint Anything, Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give or Robyn Schneider’s The Beginning of Everything, you’ll recognise scraps of the story here.
When Wing’s star football player brother causes a car crash under the influence, her world is thrown into chaos. All she wants to do is run and run until her problems are far behind, so she does. Soon she’s running on an empty school track every night, wearing out her Converse and waiting for the sun to come up. What’s more, she’s good. She’s fast. It’s in running that Wing finds something that feels totally hers. The descriptions of running in the book are grounded yet spectacular, even soaring (“with my dragon on one side and my lioness on the other, I stretch my legs out, as my feet hit the track, heel-toe, heel-toe”), notably in the first third when it’s just Wing, the night and the track. Accidentally revealing her speed creates a flood of pressure and expectation (and paves the way for improbably swift success), but it also gives her a sense of purpose and, importantly, belonging, as she joins an athletics team and makes positive female friendships, particularly with warm, self-assured sprinter Eliza and her girlfriend Annie.
I was surprised by how much I loved the book’s romance. As swoonworthy as it is sweet, t’s probably one of the top YA romances I’ve read all year. Aaron and Wing’s dynamic was built on actually spending time with each other (you’d be surprised how many YA romances aren’t!), and even with a requisite dose of drama, it’s a well-played and supportive relationship. A mix of fizzy first love and deep, realistic companionship, it’s been ages since I’ve read a YA relationship quite so delicious as this. Wing – brave, lost, angry, kind, big-hearted – grows a lot during the book, and the romance grows with her.
I was also surprised by Webber’s dextrous handling of character expression. Several secondary characters were a little two-dimensional on occasion – the book could’ve used more backstory – but her subtle understanding of the core cast was terrific. This is a deceptively hard-hitting novel, but it makes Wing’s elation all the more moving. I expect the mid-90s setting and elements of magical realism (Wing’s lioness and dragon appear to her in moments of need, but it’s never really explained in any way. Are they elaborate metaphors? Imaginary friends? Is she hallucinating?!) will be a deal-breaker for some, but a few unnecessary scenes aside, it’s an interesting twist in a hugely bittersweet book.
Bittersweet yet charming, Wing Jones is big-hearted, cinematic, satisfyingly driven YA. A top-notch romance and vivid running scenes are among the highlights as a choppy start gives way to a book that really hits its stride.