Okay, I need to preface this by saying my son loved this. He read it with his class in fifth grade, and they worked out the puzzles in the illustrations together, and he ended up asking for a set of pentominoes for his birthday.
So of course, being the middle grade fan that I am, I had to read it. And . . . it wasn’t for me. Too much of the book was one character leaping to an absolutely absurd conclusion, the other character agreeing that of course that must be right, and then it turning out to *be* right. I like a mystery that’s hard but possible to figure out. This just felt like being jerked around.
That said, it’s not exactly a mystery. It’s a puzzle. The whole plot basically sets up the puzzle for the reader. As such, it’s not an especially good plot, though the two main characters are fine enough. But it can be a fun puzzle.
And my son–he of Rubik’s cubes and coding and science fairs–well, he’s a lot like Calder. I can see why he liked this book so much.
Okay, so this is hilarious and delightful. The humor writing is top-notch, not merely zany or crazy like some middle-grade humor but subtle and surprising and *constant*. I mean it. I am in awe of how tightly written this book is.
I loved it as an adult. My third grader loved it. My older boys read it in a day. The first twist isn’t really surprising, but it’s not meant to be. It’s still funny.
Basically, for the uninitiated, the main character moves to Yawnee Valley, a city known mostly for its cows. He was established in the big city as the school prankster, and he hopes to keep that title here, even if he’d rather be anywhere else. But it appears someone else has already claimed the title: he shows up to his first day of school to find that someone has managed to get the principal’s car up the stairs of the school and has blocked the front doors with it.
It’s not really believable. Many of the characters and situations are larger than life. It doesn’t matter.
The illustrations are perfect, and they add to the appeal. But the audiobook is also excellent. I can’t decide which to recommend more. Maybe do both together?
I waffled whether to give this 3 or 4 stars. I generally don’t like half stars, but sometimes it’s merited. The thing is, what this book does well, it REALLY does well. And most of the reasons I didn’t rate it higher were personal, not the fault of the author.
I actually bought a hard copy of this book because my library didn’t have it as an audiobook and I wanted to read it so badly I shelled out some of my limited spending money for it when it went on sale. I loved the cover, the title, and the hype it was getting on Twitter. I knew next to nothing about it beyond that.
Here are some of the things it does well:
It depicts mental illness with accuracy and grace. It doesn’t sensationalize it or soften it. The MC’s mother’s schizophrenia is scary and dangerous and sometimes subtle too, and always complex.
It doesn’t present too-simplistic solutions for really hard problems.
It really put me into the setting. The unbearable heat the whole way through was like another character, and I almost felt as if I was sweating, even though I read this in the springtime.
Each relationship was developed gently and organically. The characters felt real.
The prose is gorgeous.
For these reasons, I feel this is an important book. For me personally, sometimes it felt a little . . . cute. And the plot meandered maybe more than I care for. At times I felt slightly bored and unsure where it was going.
But if literary books about important themes are your jam, I’ll bet money you’ll like this one.
I love when reading a middle grade novel feels like hanging out with real kids. I love when middle grade is funny and heartfelt and earnest and exciting. This one ticked all the boxes for me. I didn’t miss that this is the second book by Rebecca Stead that I loved, and I noticed after reading that Wendy Mass is the author of a book my oldest son loved and read twice. I guess that’s going on my to-read list! This book would be appropriate for pretty much any kid old enough to listen to a novel.
The thing is, middle grade has come a LONG way since I was a kid. The books that were the best there was back then often aren’t as good as the average book being published nowadays. There’s just so much excellent stuff being published in this century. I think Harry Potter changed the game permanently, in a good way.
So yeah, this was good. But if you’re not giving your kids more recent MG, you’re doing them a disservice. (And no, I’m not talking about Diary of a Wimpy Kid.)