54 pages 1 hour read

Erin Entrada Kelly

You Go First

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2018

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

You Go First (2018) is a middle-grade novel by Erin Entrada Kelly, who has written many award-winning books. She received the Newbery Medal for her third novel, Hello Universe, in 2017. In You Go First, Charlotte Lockard and Ben Boxer are friends who meet while playing Scrabble online and have never met in real life. Neither has many friends, and both are bullied. When Charlotte’s dad has a heart attack and Ben’s parents announce that they’re getting divorced, Charlotte and Ben rely increasingly on each other for support, even though they don’t discuss their actual problems. The novel explores The Role of Online Games and Communication in Forming Connections, The Impact of Family Dynamics on Young People, and The Challenges of Navigating Friendship and Bullying in Middle School.

This guide refers to the paperback edition published by Greenwillow Books in 2019.

Content Warning: The source material and this guide discuss bullying. In addition, the source text includes instances of name-calling, including derogatory language about mental health conditions, which are reproduced in this guide only in direct quotes of the source material.

Plot Summary

You Go First takes place over one week and alternates between the points of view of 12-year-old Charlotte Lockard, who lives in Pennsylvania, and 11-year-old Ben Boxer, who lives in Louisiana. The two protagonists play Scrabble online together and have never met in person. Charlotte’s father recently had a heart attack, and she waits in the hospital with her mother while her father undergoes emergency surgery. Charlotte is distressed but distracts herself by thinking about the starfish dissection she’ll get to perform in science class soon. Meanwhile, Ben is delighted because he has finally advanced to first place in online Scrabble, surpassing Charlotte for the first time. He approaches his parents to tell them, but they have news of their own: They’re getting divorced, which shocks Ben because he’s never seen them fight. He’s confused as to why two brilliant chemists can’t make a marriage work. Although he’s overwhelmed and distraught, he claims not to have any questions about the divorce and changes the subject to Scrabble.

Charlotte’s father is a retired art history professor, but Charlotte, like her statistician mother, doesn’t understand most of the art her dad likes. Her longtime best friend, Bridget, loves art. Charlotte doesn’t want to visit her dad’s hospital room because seeing him will make his illness more “real.” Meanwhile, Ben locks himself in his bedroom and avoids his parents because he thinks divorce means they’re “devolving,” and he wants to “evolve.” Ben thinks he should call someone since he just found out major news, but he scrolls through his contacts and realizes he has no friends except for Charlotte, whose voice he’s never heard (although they text often). He calls her and, although they don’t tell each other about their specific situations, both kids feel better, realizing someone cares about them.

Charlotte recalls how she used to play Scrabble with her dad, but they stopped once she became a tween. Now, she wishes she had seized every opportunity to spend time with him. One day, she chats with Bridget in her backyard and Magda, a neighbor who is Charlotte’s age, asks about her dad’s health. Magda is bullied relentlessly at school, so Charlotte and Bridget usually avoid her. At school, Bridget makes new friends in art class and plans to start an art club that will meet during lunchtime. This leaves Charlotte alone at lunch since Bridget is her only friend. She cries during a science quiz, but nobody notices.

Ben decides to run for student council to help him “evolve” and possibly make new friends. He approaches kids at lunch to ask for their votes, but most of them, especially Theo and Sherry, make fun of him. Still, Ben is determined not to give up. He gives a speech during English class, but his classmates make fun of him even more. He creates campaign posters and plans fancy outfits to wear to school. He still refuses to discuss the divorce with his parents, though he thinks it’s his fault. Charlotte and Ben continue playing Scrabble, bringing them both comfort.

Bridget and Charlotte study at Bridget’s house, and her little brother asks Charlotte if her dad is going to die. Bridget reprimands him, but Charlotte secretly wants to discuss the possibility of her father’s death with Bridget. She asks if she can join the art club even though she’s not “artsy,” but Bridget claims Sophie, the president, wants to limit membership to serious artsy kids. Bridget now has Vans sneakers, which the popular kids wear. Ben and Charlotte talk on the phone again, and Ben wishes they could hang out and eat lunch together.

Charlotte asks Sophie if she can join the art club, but Sophie says that she’s actually not the president and doesn’t know how membership will work yet. During lunch, Charlotte goes to the library and eavesdrops on the first art club meeting; the members are just Bridget, Sophie, and a girl named Dee Dee. Bridget complains about Charlotte, telling lies about her sick dad and calling Charlotte a “parasite” she wants to get rid of. The conversation switches to “cute” boys whom Charlotte thinks are immature. Later, Charlotte cries alone.

Ben hangs his campaign posters at school and educates other kids about recycling during lunch, hoping to gain their votes. Theo smears ketchup on his shirt, so Ben goes to the front office to get a replacement. The woman who works there, Mrs. Carlile, is friendly. She has a child helper named Wyatt, who eats lunch in the office because his food allergies make the cafeteria unsafe for him. Ben gets along with Wyatt because they’re both funny, smart, and logical. Ben and Charlotte continue their phone calls and Scrabble games, and although they don’t discuss their issues, they still make each other feel better. Ben practices a campaign speech that he’ll perform in front of the school in a couple of days.

Charlotte convinces her mom to buy her Vans, but at lunch, she trips over the laces and falls. Other kids laugh, and nobody offers to help her up. She runs onto the roof and finds Magda, who eats lunch there every day. She has an app on her phone that identifies types of leaves, which Charlotte’s dad taught her about. Meanwhile, Theo trips Ben, who falls and cuts his chin. He goes to the office to get a bandage from Mrs. Carlile and chat with Wyatt. During Ben’s campaign speech, Theo and his friends throw firecrackers at Ben, causing him to wet his pants, so his mom picks him up from school early.

Charlotte invites Magda to be her lab partner for the upcoming starfish dissection, but she is bullied in science class that day. The next day, Charlotte skips school to avoid her bullies and visits the art museum, hoping to understand her father’s favorite artists, such as Van Gogh. However, when she looks at the art, she still feels nothing. Her mom discovers she’s not at school and calls Ben, who tells her about the museum plan. She picks up Charlotte and takes her to visit her father in the hospital. Charlotte is pleasantly surprised because her dad isn’t as sick as she thought. He thinks it’s funny that Charlotte skipped school but still doesn’t understand art.

Ben helps his dad move into his new apartment and looks forward to decorating his bedroom there. He considers that maybe his family is “evolving” after all. Ben discovers that Wyatt lives in the same apartment complex, and the boys go to Sonic together, solidifying their friendship. Bridget calls Charlotte to check on her dad’s health, but Charlotte doesn’t want to hang out with her. Instead, Charlotte apologizes to Magda for missing the starfish dissection and invites her over to play Scrabble with her.

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