by Kristin Elizabeth Clark
Jess, Chunk, and the Road Trip to Infinity is a YA contemporary work released in 2016 about Jess, a girl amidst gender transition, and her best friend Chunk as they take a road trip from San Jose to Chicago for Jess’ father’s wedding.
This is the plot in its most basic form, and I will leave it at that so there aren’t any spoilers.
I cannot tell you how happy I am to see more and more literature representing the LGBTQ+ community on bookshelves. This is such an important time in our society, and I believe embracing one another and our differences is incredibly important – and what makes humans so unique. We need more of this!
Now, the book:
As a whole, I thought the story was cute. I enjoyed the dimensions to Jess’ various relationships throughout the book – be it family, friend, or romantic interest – and witnessing these change and progress. It felt like a special treat to be witnessing first-hand (and in close proximity thanks to Chunk’s tiny Honda) the evolution of Jess’ thoughts and feelings, especially those toward her father and her best friend.
Jess and Chunk are each interesting in their own right, and I think the small details that the reader discovers about each of them come pretty authentically throughout the story, but I think the book’s editor (and/or author) might have done a disservice to the novel by placing the author’s note at the beginning of the book rather than at the end. While I fully admire and support Kristin Clark’s personal story and her push for social awareness, I felt like it distracted from the story overall. ONLY BECAUSE I couldn’t separate her identity as author and mother from that of the main character.
I found myself being entirely aware of the fact that the author – though she is a LGBTQ+ ally – is neither transgender nor a teenager, but rather the mother of a transgender child whose experiences may have been closely aligned with or reflected in those of the novel’s narrator.
On some levels I know this is not fair, because how many published YA books are written by teenagers? Pretty much none. But Jess’ relationship with her mother is an integral part of this story, and I couldn’t help but hear the voice of Kristin Clark the author/mother echoing throughout their interactions. As a result, I was disappointed that I couldn’t make an organic opinion of Jess’s character because it was overshadowed from the very beginning by my knowledge of the author’s own experiences.
In a way, placing the author’s note at the beginning of the novel almost seemed like an attempt to verify or underline the author’s “expertise” on the subject. But, for me, this had the opposite effect. “I can write from the perspective of a transgender female because I am the mother of a transgender female,” is not going to instantly sell me on your credibility. Rather, having it be the first thing I read makes me curious if the story is going to openly represent the identity of its transgender character, or if it will be the persona/identity of a mother of a transgender child that I am reading.
There were places in the story where these two identities did seem to get confused. Especially when it came to allusions to things like pop culture and stereotypical “teenage” characteristics.
I also believed that the book could use a couple more chapters at the end to reach full completion. The story was cute and the characters even more endearing, so when it came to the ending, I found myself a bit unsatisfied with the overall wrap-up of the plot. While the relationships between many characters were developed nicely, it felt like (in particular) the relationships between Jess and her dad, as well as Jess and Chunk, reached a climax and then just… stopped.
How does Jess deal with these changes emotionally? What does she think about how these changes might affect her future? We aren’t really given any insight into these questions because of the abrupt end to the narrative.
It’s so frustrating because I want to know! I found myself truly invested in these characters’ struggles and journeys, and I want to know the results. Why, Kristin Clark? Why must you keep these things from me?!
[START OF MILD SPOILERS]
There is one other thing that I found particularly problematic with this read, and that is the book’s way of dealing with fat shaming. Chunk’s real name is Chuck, and “Chuck” is his preferred name. Why? Because “Chunk” was the cruel nickname he was given in elementary school for being overweight. So why does Jess – a character who points out on multiple occasions the importance of people calling her by her chosen name and not her given name – keep calling her best friend Chunk?!
At one point she even acknowledges that this was the nickname given to him because of his weight, so it isn’t as if she was ignorant of this fact throughout the entirety of the novel. In fact, Chuck addresses this to her in the car but she continues to refer to him as Chunk (both in thought and dialogue). Chuck eventually has to yell at her (more than three quarters of the way through the novel) to stop calling him Chunk, to not introduce him to new people as Chunk, and that it hurts his feelings that she calls him this (and apparently has for the last 10 years of their friendship!) What? This makes absolutely no sense to me.
While I understand that the author wants to emphasize Jess’ self-absorption, I find it incredibly hard to believe that she would ever have called her best friend the nickname that bullies called him in elementary school because of his weight; especially given the fact that Chuck used to stand up for her against these same bullies. This was such a contradiction in character that it was 1) extremely off-putting, and 2) very difficult to believe.
[END OF SPOILERS]
Overall, this book gets a UUS (Ultimately Useless Stories) Give-Me-A-Read nomination, so you can make up your own mind! For anyone who loves contemporary fiction in the LGBTQ+ genre, or if you have been interested in the genre and aren’t sure where to begin, I would definitely give Jess, Chunk, and the Road Trip to Infinity a read!
(Just maybe skip the author’s note and come back to it at the end.)
Final Count: 3.25 stars