Allison's Book Bag

Posts Tagged ‘Richard Levine

Two Kids by Richard Levine has potential. Sadly, what could have been an endearing story of how two middle-school students develop a friendship after each of their families experiences tragedy gets mired down with the inclusion of numerous irrelevant small moments. In addition, a rambling style with an idiosyncratic word choice style rambles causes the action to drag. Even so, if redesigned as a series of quirky journal entries, Two Kids still might have made it onto my recommended books list.

Blurbs describe Two Kids as being a “character-driven portrayal of modern youth set in the New York suburbs”. This seems like an apt description. Rob fancies headlines and even describes his days in terms of them. After his cousin’s birthday party, he comes up with: “Party Over, Cheek Kisses Exchange”. Rob also enjoys the beach and baseball, among other things. D.C. likes being known by her initials, believing that it adds a little mystery to who one is, and is gawky and tall. At the party, she wears a t-shirt from her mom’s candy store, of which knows a lot and is quite proud.

Near the start of the novel, tragedy hits both of their lives. After issuing a challenge to his dad to prove who’s the best basketball player between them, Rob loses his dad to a heart attack. As for D.C., her mom also ends up in emergency, where she loses her baby in childbirth. I expected subsequent chapters to revolve around the two aforementioned tragedies, but instead these events almost feel incidental. Only one chapter is dedicated to sharing how the two young people feel, which is obviously sad. D.C. does note that it takes a month for her mom to return to family life and Rob does refers to how he’ll dream his dad is still alive. After that though, minimal attention is devoted to showing how death has impacted the two.

Instead Levine choses to focus on the everyday highs and lows of the average middle-school adolescent. Granted, there are sweet moments, especially as a romance blossoms between Rob and D.C.. Unfortunately, far too many moments serve only to interrupt an already loose-knit plot. The worse offender is a chapter called Snakes on a Lane. In it, D.C. goes for a jog and gets spooked by a snake. After picking herself up and continuing, she encounters a fawn and later a pond with dragonflies, grasshoppers, and butterflies. This might be a pleasant moment in real life, but in Two Kids it simply feels like a character snippet that should have been cut. Other examples also revolve around descriptions, that of people and even topics as mundane as the weather. While these type of lackadaisical moments used to regularly appear in classics, with some even being well-loved, they’re considered unacceptable in modern middle-school fare and consequentially create an outdated feel to Two Kids.

Verbosity also hurts Two Kids.  Take for example the passage about biology class. Rob not only describes his Spanish teacher, but he tells us how his classmates view her, and how he views her, and how the vice-principal fawns over her. Then he proceeds to describe the vice-principal and how full he is of himself, and how classmates mimic him, and…. Buried within this long-winded passage is a significant moment. The Spanish teacher requires students to get a letter signed that explained to parents how disrespectful their child had acted. When Rob returns his, the teacher lectures him for not having both parents sign, ignoring that Rob’s dad has died. Apparently, Levine himself experienced an incident like this which adds to the poignancy here, but like many other sections the text needed more edits to make a clean read.

While plot and style lack polish, Two Kids still might have made my “borrow it” list if a better design had been employed. This might seem like an odd statement to make about a novel, but I believe it’s a worthwhile point. Consider that a week ago, I reviewed another middle-school novel that worked partly at least because of the snappy title, fun cover, and the journal-like inside pages. In contrast, Levine’s novel has the simplistic title of Two Kids and is accompanied by a plain cover that merely features two kids in sports attire and inside pages with dense forbidding text.

A rule-of-thumb for agents and publishers is that if the first five pages don’t appeal, one shouldn’t read the book. Unless a book offends me, I prefer to give authors more grace. In doing so, I discovered that Two Kids is sweet with a lot of heart. Regrettably, those two traits still aren’t quite enough to make me recommend it.

My rating? Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.

How would you rate this book?

RichardLevineRichard Levine grew up on Long Island. He practiced Diagnostic Radiology for many years before his retirement. He and his wife have two daughters. While watching the movie Bridge to Terabithia with his youngest daughter, Levine felt inspired to write his own novel for young people. I’ll post my review of Two Kids tomorrow. Save the date: August 20!

Levine’s journey to publication was not a short one. His first draft was way too brief, a fact brought home to him when one of his daughters read it in an hour. His novel then ballooned to 400 pages, way too long for a middle-school book. Motivated by the belief that his novel was close, he revised it multiple times. When Levine felt he had finally gotten his novel right, he self-published and received some positive reviews. Finally, just a year ago, Firedrake Books made suggestions for improvement and agreed to traditionally publish Levine’s book.

Many of his Levine’s own personal experiences have found their way into Two Kids. For example, the hours he spent exploring the woods and pond of fields surrounding my grandma’s house as a kid inspired the secluded and expansive Overhill property. Also, just like the young people in his novel, he has been on party boats. “On the boat was my mom’s second husband, who was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s at the time, and provided the inspiration for the old man in the book who goes overboard.” Additional incidents are also described in my interview with Levine.


ALLISON: What is a special family moment from childhood?

RICHARD: More than a moment, it was a cross-country road trip my family took when I was eight. We took the southern route out west through the Texas panhandle, Arizona, and Nevada, and the northern route back home through South Dakota and Michigan. I made a scrapbook of postcards I collected throughout the trip, all labeled in my 8-year-old, sloppy, loopy-lettered script. It seems that at the time I was quite fond of the word famous–for there are postcards from the famous painted desert, the famous Grand Canyon, the famous Golden Gate Bridge, the famous Old Faithful geyser, the famous Corn Palace, the famous Mount Rushmore . . . well, okay, you get the picture. Many years later now, hopefully, I’ve added a few additional adjectives to my vocabulary.

ALLISON: How about a friendship moment from adolescence?

RICHARD: I can’t think of one particular dramatic “friendship moment” from my teenage years, but periodically, and at times when I might least expect it, some memories from those years float up into consciousness–a friend, who with me was crushing heavily on Katharine Ross from The Graduate, who would teasingly taunt me by opening his notebook to a full page head shot of her whenever I would walk by his seat in class; trips into the city with friends to see the NY Knicks play at the old Madison Square Garden, where we would sit way up high in $2 seats (imagine!) that we were able to get with our G.O. cards; a Saturday daytime adventure exploring Manhattan with two friends (one male, one female), feeling like we were characters in a novel or movie; an unexpected kiss on the cheek from a girl who for some reason had taken an interest in me (a memory that undoubtedly inspired the cheek kiss in “The Kissin’ Cousin” section of Two Kids).

ALLISON: What interested you most in school?

RICHARD: A bit of a stumper of a question. Certainly, I was always interested in doing well in school, but probably not so much because I had overarching enthusiasm for any particular school subject(s). More likely, that interest would have stemmed originally from wanting to please my parents and teachers. I did find, however, that one thing led to another, i.e., wanting to do well academically led to the development of competence in school subjects, which, in turn, led to, if not outright enthusiasm, at least a measured degree of interest, in them. That said, in junior high school (we didn’t have middle school in those days), I was more interested in sports, both as a player and as a fan, than in academic subjects. Later on in high school, I became an avid reader, mostly of novels, mostly American novels. I remember very much enjoying a one semester course I took entitled The American Novel of Social Protest, in which we read books such as Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, Norris’s The Octopus, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, among others; I believe there were eight novels of that sort, some of them quite long, and in thinking back on it, it seems like it was quite a bit of reading for just one half-year course!

ALLISON: What is your most embarrassing moment from adolescence?

RICHARD: Another stumper, not that there weren’t a whole host of embarrassing moments, I’m sure; it’s just that there have been so many since adolescence, and I tend to remember those quite clearly–I suspect they have crowded out the earlier ones. Well, I do remember one, and I forget exactly why, but one of my ninth grade teachers asked that some paper she had handed out to all students in the class be signed by both parents. As my father had died the summer before, I had my mother sign the paper, but upon seeing that my paper had only one signature on it, the teacher confronted me in front of the whole class. I certainly had no expectation of being challenged in that way, and I didn’t know quite what to say; as I recall, I hurriedly ran through different possibilities–my father’s dead, my father died, my father passed away, my father’s no longer alive, my father’s not living anymore. I believe I chose the last option, and I’m not sure why I found the whole episode embarrassing– other than saying it as I did seemed an awful awkward way of putting it.


ALLISON: You practiced Diagnostic Radiology before retirement. What inspired you to write a book for young people?

RICHARD: An easier question, for I do remember exactly when and how I was inspired to write Two Kids. I had taken my younger daughter to see the movie Bridge to Terabithia. The story was unknown to me at the time, although I did know that both my daughters had read the novel as a middle school assignment. So it came as quite a shock to me when the young heroine dies, but the fact that she does in a widely read and accepted novel led me to understand that it would be okay to write about death of a loved one in realistic fiction for middle-schoolers. There were also two themes in the movie that appealed to me–the importance of friendship, and the value of shared imagination between friends–themes that are also present in Two Kids. The basic premise of the novel came to me that day but, as I was not retired at the time, I thought to myself–well, maybe you could write that novel in another life. Shortly afterwards, I did decide to retire (although not with the specific intention of writing a novel), and a few days into that retirement, I thought that I did now in fact have “another life,” and why not give that novel-writing thing a try?

ALLISON: How did you get into the mind of a pre-adolescent girl for telling D.C.’s story?

RICHARD: At the time I started writing Two Kids, my very own two kids (daughters) had relatively recently gone through pre-adolescence, and although that might not have given me any special insight into their thought processes at that age, at least I was aware of the language they used in conversation. But here’s the thing that I quickly learned about writing a novel–you, the writer, are completely in charge of the characters you create, that is, you make them think, do, and say whatever you want them to. Now, of course, if you’re writing a realistic novel, you want your characters to be believable, but within that framework, and since there are many different personalities that a pre-adolescent girl might have, I chose to make D.C. spunky, athletic, smart, and smart-alecky. Hopefully, she’s believable.

ALLISON: Initially, you self-published Two Kids. What was that experience like?

RICHARD: It was tough. I was a complete novice with respect to everything about writing and publishing a novel, so I contracted with IndieReader to help me with the process, with all the little details about which I had no idea. When the novel was in one of its initial rough forms, they also provided me with what I believe they called an editorial consult, which was very helpful.

ALLISON: Eventually, Two Kids was picked up by a small publishing company. How did that compare?

RICHARD: That certainly was easier, as all the little details were handled by the publisher, Firedrake Books. The talented, hard-working and ambitious president of this small publishing company, Nikki Bennett, herself a writer of middle grade and young adult books, was also very helpful in providing editorial assistance. She would make very sensible suggestions that, of course, being a reasonably defensive person, I would initially reject out of hand. Over time, however, my defensiveness would relent, I would see the logic and rationale of her suggestions, and accede to them. The biggest change that this resulted in was the omission from Two Kids of sections “voiced” by adults that had been included in the original.

ALLISON: What’s next?

RICHARD: I do have a not very well-formed idea for another middle grade novel, this one involving kids a little older than those in Two Kids. I have just recently started work on it and have the first ten pages written–although if experience is a guide, those pages are subject to dramatic revision. The story concerns a group of young high school kids who share a lunchroom table and call themselves The Defectives. With apologies to Herman Melville, the opening sentence is “Call me Bugboy.”

Allisons' Book Bag Logo

Thank You!

Allison’s Book Bag will no longer be updated. Thank you for eight years!

You can continue to follow me at:



Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 127 other subscribers