By Tyler McMaster
Contributing Writer

Middle school is hard. It’s a time when cliques begin to form and popularity feels like it stands paramount above your schoolwork.

For 12-year-old Alan Cole, it becomes one of the most important periods of his young life. In Eric Bell’s debut novel, “Alan Cole is Not a Coward,” the trials and tribulations of Alan’s identity, family and self-discovery are explored with a well-trained eye and empathetic heart.

Right off the bat, readers are dropped into Alan’s heartwarming world as he narrates tentative steps through adolescence with humor and insight. A central tension in this novel lies between Alan and his brother Nathan. Their relationship is combative, to say the least, with Nathan constructing elaborate challenges he knows Alan cannot accomplish.

Nathan’s game, referred to as “Cole Vs. Cole,” comes to a head when Nathan learns of Alan’s crush on a male student and threatens to reveal the secret to the entire school if Alan loses. What follows is his valiant effort to complete the challenges. Along the way, he faces monumental lessons concerning friendship, family and what it means to truly embrace yourself.

Alan is joined by a colorful cast of characters, two of which are new friends and lunch mates, Zack and Madison. Zack is another standout character in this novel, exhibiting a fearless attitude which some may consider eccentric, but truly shows his enormous heart. Madison’s journey throughout the novel is just as important and solidifies his friendship with Alan in magnificent ways. They truly bring added light to this story.

The juxtaposition of light and dark is a huge element to the story. There is a distinct balance between the bright colors of a juvenile novel and the darker moments of Alan’s father, an emotional abuser. These moments are not entirely explicit, yet they keep the characters grounded and lead to important transformations later on. However, the balance between lighter and darker elements is what also sets Bell’s novel apart from other juvenile stories. It feels wholly human.

One of the best strengths of this novel is Bell’s ability to present deep emotional concepts in language that is not too complex for middle school readers, but it doesn’t underestimate them either. There is a profound understanding of his audience in the way he writes about Alan and those around him.

This is a distinctive triumph in the world of juvenile fiction, where some authors have ignored the emotional intelligence of their readers. What may take some professionals years to master, Bell has championed early. The novel is available online and in stores through Katherine Tegen Books/Harper Collins.



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