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You Go First

You Go First

You Go First

Written by Erin Entrada Kelly

Published by Greenwillow Books, 2018

ISBN # 978-0-06-241418-2


Grades 5 and up


Book Review

The link between middle schoolers Charlotte Lockard and Ben Boxer is an online one—a friendly rivalry around a Scrabble game that they play against each other and occasionally text each other about. But that’s not the only link they share, despite living over a thousand miles apart. Both tweens are intellectually gifted and grappling with the mercurial middle school social scene, the surprising changes in their families, and the tension between wanting things to remain the way they used to be and wanting things to evolve. Charlotte and Ben have different interests and experiences, for sure, but the modest connection they share ends up being the life line they each need when navigating all of these challenges threatens to overwhelm them completely. Though their ethnicities are ambiguous, the social network they work through is a diverse one. Newbery award winning author Erin Entrada Kelly offers another tender realistic novel about the vulnerable, young adolescents with big hopes and larger hearts. A sublime, character-driven story for whole-class read-alouds or independent reading, You Go First is a fine addition to classrooms.

Teaching Ideas and Invitations

 Grades 5 and up

Word Scrambles. Charlotte plays with language by scrambling words and phrases she encounters, taking the letters of the words and rearranging them to form new ones. For example, she discovers the word migration can be made from waiting room, and the words fealty, fettle, and latte in the name Lafayette. Challenge your students to scramble up words they hear and see as part of your word study or vocabulary instruction. Keep running lists of word scrambles on chart paper that students can add to throughout the week whenever they come up with a new scramble.

Playing Scrabble and Other Word Games. Ask your students if they are familiar with online or mobile Scrabble games like Words With Friends, or even the original board game. Do they play any other word games? If not, do they know anyone who plays those games? Have them interview someone who plays these games regularly to find out why they play and what they get out of it as a gamer. What is the appeal and challenge of playing word games? Incorporate some of these games into your instruction or class free time. Check with your school to see which ones they might subscribe to as an educational institution.

Scrabble Championships. The annual North American School Scrabble Championships is open to students in grades 3 through 8 across North America. Encourage and coach your students to enter the competition and see how far they can go, starting with contests in the classroom, then extending it to the grade level, then the school, and possibly beyond. Though they may not be eligible for other Scrabble championships, you might still help them research and explore information about them, such as the prestigious World Scrabble Championships take place every year across the world in different Latin-based languages (English, Spanish, French, German, and Catalan most notably) and the World Youth Scrabble Championships.

Research and Rabbit Holes. Charlotte explains that a rabbit hole is what her dad called it whenever she got swept up in researching useless, but interesting and sometimes truly fascinating information. It’s a wonderful allusion to the rabbit hole that Alice goes down in Alice in Wonderland. If your students were given the freedom to (within age-appropriate boundaries, of course), what kinds of research rabbit holes would they pursue? Have them brainstorm a list of random topics they are interested in, and then equip them with the tools and teach them the research skills they might use to pursue research about them. You might want to enlist the help of your school or local librarian for this. Give students a set amount of time to go down these rabbit holes, and then have them report back and present what they discovered. This is a great way to learn more about your students’ authentic interests and literacy strengths, as well as to use the information you gather about these interests and strengths to design and plan more meaningful curricula and instruction for them.

Extended Metaphors and Symbols. Throughout the novel, author Erin Entrada Kelly introduces and extends symbols and metaphors to enrich character descriptions and plot developments. Some of these symbols and metaphors are introduced at the beginning of a chapter, such as a sea star and the hemlock plant; others are introduced at the beginning and threaded throughout the entire novel, such as rabbit hole. Help students to identify the various metaphors and symbols Erin Entrada Kelly skillfully weaves into the story, and then discuss how they are extended beyond a single use or mention to describe more complex feelings and events that arise.

Exploring Setting. Though most of the action occurs in the fictional towns of Lanester, Louisiana, where Ben lives, and the Philadelphia suburb where Charlotte lives, other real settings are given prominence: Ann Arbor, Michigan; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, specifically. Conduct a simple Google search to pull  up images of these places so that students have a visual reference. Have students gather the descriptions of each place that Erin Entrada Kelly provides, piecing together information about them. Have students research those places to construct a full picture of where the story’s events occur. Then, discuss with students how setting influences character and plot development. Encourage them to do similar research when writing realistic and fictional narratives in order to advance their skills at creating settings.

Diving Deep into Character. One of Erin Entrada Kelly’s strengths as an author is her ability to portray complex characters in subtle ways. You Go First centers around two middle schoolers’ growth and development from carefree children to tweens whose sense of family and friends shatter to young adolescents on the cusp of newfound confidence and friendships. What makes their individual character’s development similar or different from each other, as well as secondary characters in the book who undergo such transformations? What elements of character (e.g., dialogue, action, description, etc.) highlight important turns in Charlotte’s and Ben’s development, and are there any examples that specifically reveal those turns? Which secondary characters support or hinder their growth, and how? In what ways do they connect and disconnect with Charlotte and Ben? Have students create short monologues that really epitomize the protagonists’ character development and perform them before the class.

“Reading” a Work of Visual Art and Reader Response. Charlotte tries several times to “read” paintings the way her father does, but ultimately can only read it the way she sees it. What does it mean to “read” a work of visual art? Reading print involves making meaning of the signs (i.e., letters) of the alphabet, so what are the signs of visual art that one must make meaning of? Teach students about the artistic principles that go into painting to convey meaning, such as contrast, light and shadow, line, texture, color, etc. On a projector screen, show students a number of paintings for them to read and interpret. What kinds of reader responses do they share when reading a painting versus reading a printed text? As long as students can support their responses with evidence from the painting, there can be a wide variety of valid reader responses. The Post-Impressionist paintings that intrigue Charlotte’s father can be a good place to start. See the links in Further Explorations below.

Text Set: Long Distance Friendships. The friendship between Charlotte and Ben began with an online Scrabble game. Given 21st century advancements in technology and social media, childhood friendships have evolved in different ways. With the help of your school or local librarian, gather a text set of novels and picture books about long distance friendships (some titles are listed below in Further Explorations). Closely read these texts to explore the different ways that long distance friendships begin, grow, and change. How do the characters sustain their friendship? How do long distance friendships differ from friendships with others who live nearby? What are the pros and cons of long-distance friendships? How might some of these friendships be just as—if not more—meaningful than everyday friendships? With these insights, invite students to write a story about a long-distance friendship.

Erin Entrada Kelly Author Study. Gather a collection of Erin Entrada Kelly’s work and biographical information, including interviews and videos. As a class, read through the novels she wrote, noting similarities and differences across the books’ formats and styles. Pay special attention to her use of diverse languages, perspectives, and characters. Ask your students to identify patterns in setting, theme, character, and plot across the books. Based on students’ inquiries, observations, and analyses, compile a list of lessons about writing gained from this study and invite your students to try out some of the techniques you have discussed in their own work. See the websites and titles listed below as a starting point for gathering information. This teaching invitation originally appeared in our entry on Hello, Universe.

Further Explorations

Online Resources

Erin Entrada Kelly’s website

Scrabble – Hasbro website

Online Scrabble

School Scrabble Championships

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Post Impressionism



House, S., & Vaswani, N. (2012). Same sun here. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press. See our Classroom Bookshelf entry here:

Kelly, E. E. (2015). Blackbird fly. New York: Greenwillow Books.

Kelly, E. E. (2017). Hello, universe. New York: Greenwillow Books.

Kelly, E. E. (2016). The land of forgotten girls. New York: Greenwillow Books.

Koestecki-Shaw, J. S. (2011). Same, same but different. New York: Christy Ottaviano/Henry Holt. See our Classroom Bookshelf entry here:

Park, L. S. (2011). A long walk to water. New York: Clarion.

Zenatti, Valerie. (2008). A bottle in the Gaza Sea. New York: Bloomsbury.

Grace Enriquez About Grace Enriquez

Grace is an associate professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former English Language Arts teacher, reading specialist, and literacy consultant, she teaches and writes about children’s literature, critical literacies, and literacies and embodiment. Grace is co-author of The Reading Turn-Around and co-editor of Literacies, Learning, and the Body.