Not an Easy Win by Chrystal D. Giles

Not an Easy Win is the encouraging story of a displaced young man finding purpose and life lessons in the game of chess.

Not an Easy Win by Chrystal D. Giles. Random House, 2023, 239 pages

Reading Level: Middle Grades, ages 10-12

Recommended for: ages 10-14

Life as a Misfit

Lawrence has good memories of life in Charlotte, before his pop left. Now he and his mother and little sister have moved in with Granny in little Larenville, NC, where Mama works a two-bit job and Granny seems to have it in for him. School is no picnic either, especially as Lawrence is one of the few black kids and can’t seem to avoid conflict. But the fight that gets him suspended leads to an unexpected benefit. His next-door neighbor Mr. Dennis runs the afterschool program for underprivileges kids at the local recreation center, and he agrees to let Lawrence help out part time. Mr. Dennis doesn’t talk much but there’s a side to him the boy didn’t expect: he’s a chess player.

Chess is an unexplored world for Lawrence, but he finds it full of fascination—and he’s also fascinated by some of the other kids who play. Especially Twyla, who’s beautiful and smart. Theodore, nicknamed Deuce, is the second-best player, and he seems to dislike Lawrence on sight. Can the new boy compete with these two? Or if not, could he pick up enough competence to play in the chess tournament coming up in Charlotte?

Finding His Groove

Not an Easy Win covers familiar territory for middle-grade novels: the missing parent, the misfit finding his groove, the gruff mentor, the enemy who could become a friend, the first crush. But the content is clean and the characters appealing and nicely complex. I like how Granny, who first appears a Bible-thumping sourpuss, becomes more rounded and soft as Lawrence comes to know her. The relationship with Deuce seems to shift a little too quickly, but there are reasons. The “life lessons” are clear but not cloying, as Lawrence begins to overcome his hostility and self-pity. “Sometimes we go through things in life in order to pull someone else up with us,” Mr. Dennis observes. An interesting thought that might help a struggling young person look up and around. Who is there around us that we might help pull up?

Overall Rating: 4.25

  • Worldview/moral value:4
  • Artistic/literary value: 4.5

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Janie Cheaney

Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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