My excellent boss, Rachel Helps, gifted me the best possible early Christmas present this year: a signed copy of Shannon Hale’s new YA novel, Kind of a Big Deal.
This past summer, I worked on Hale’s Wikipedia page, as well as those of many of her books: Princess Academy and its sequels, and The Goose Girl and its sequels. The project was a very welcome, nostalgia-filled return to my childhood. Re-reading the adventures of Miri, Ani, Enna, and more made me feel like a little girl again—in the best way.
Kind of a Big Deal made me feel … well, like the young adult I am. It follows protagonist Josie Pie—a has-been, high-school theater star who tried and failed to make it on Broadway—who constantly feels like anything but the heroine of her own story. We’ve all been there. Josie’s situation is a more grandiose version of what we all experience as young adults: the realization that we’re not the center of the universe after all.
But when Josie opens a book for the first time in years, she is sucked in—literally—and becomes the story’s main character. She is able to live inside novels. It’s every bookworm’s dream; or, at least, it’s mine. She starts with a tawdry romance, which I immediately scoffed at—but ended up enjoying despite myself. Josie then moves on to a dystopian YA I can only describe as “silly”—but I enjoyed Hale’s obvious mockery of the subgenre. After a while of trying and failing to figure out how she is able to jump into stories, she spends too long living out her lost dreams through a book about a Broadway actress.
Josie is a fairly cut-and-dry character, I must say. She’s one I spent the entirety of the novel feeling sorry for. This is quite the departure from Hale’s past heroines; I found myself looking for Miri’s intelligence or Ani’s courage in Josie and coming up empty. She is, however, a more realistic character, and that is probably what Hale needed to balance out the fantastical plot line of literally jumping into stories. But I kept waiting for a quirky, confident Josie to emerge regardless. And she never really came.
Kind of a Big Deal has a truly fantastic premise. I read the blurb on the inside cover and noticed my stomach fluttering. A main character that’s able to become the protagonist of the novel of her choice—now that’s creative, alluring, and unique. And the first half of the novel lived up to my expectations, for the most part. But I got lost when, at the climax, Hale chose to explain the “how” of Josie’s literary adventures. I won’t spoil it, but suffice it to say that the revelation felt more like a fever dream than anything else. I would’ve preferred that “how” to be left as an enticing, enigmatic mystery. Additionally, the romance plot line left me wanting.
The novel did not turn out in the way I’d expected. But is that really a tragedy? Perhaps it shouldn’t be. I closed the back cover feeling disappointed, but not in the acerbic that-was-a-waste-of-time way that is all too common in YA today. It didn’t leave a sour taste in my mouth by any means—just not a sweet one.
Let’s put it this way: if Hale wrote a Midnight in Austenland-style sequel to Kind of a Big Deal, I’d pick it up quickly. Keep the concept, but give me a protagonist that’s allowed to move on from the past and turn into someone impressive. It’s important in YA to give readers someone they can relate to—but it’s even more important to turn that someone into a character they can admire.