Children’s Fiction of 2008: Surviving Seventh Grade

Fouling Out by Gregory Walters.

Carlos Is Gonna Get It by Kevin Emerson.

Bringing the Boy Home by N.A. Nelson.

Growing up is hard to do. That’s the message of all three of these middle grade fiction nominees, and the message comes through loud and clear. Craig in Fouling Out, Trina and her friends in Carlos Is Gonna Get It, and Tirio in Bringing the Boy Home all have to pass through their own rite of passage and come to some understanding that “coming of age” involves more than just celebrating a birthday. There’s some disillusionment and some hard facts of life to face at the end of each novel, but there’s also hope for the main character/narrator in each book and for the friend/helper whose problems impel each one to maturity.

Fouling Out, a Canadian title, begins with Craig Trilosky getting more than a little tired of his friend Tom. The boys have been friends since second grade, but Tom is becoming more and more wild and trouble-prone while Craig’s thinking he might make a lot fewer trips to the principal’s office and be more popular with the rest of the seventh grade class if he stopped hanging out with Tom so much. Changing your life and making new friends and loyalty to old friendships are a few of the themes of the book, and although Craig is low-class seventh grade —jaded, blase, and insecure underneath all the sarcasm and bravado—the thematic elements carried the story in spite of my antipathy for the narrator thoughout much of the book. I wanted Craig to lose the derisive and defiant voice, but I realized as I read that part of the message of the book was that change doesn’t come overnight, that growing up is a process, and that even underachieving and somewhat obnoxious seventh grade boys may have redeeming qualities.

I remembered that lesson as I read Carlos Is Gonna Get It by Kevin Emerson. I didn’t like the narrator of this one very much either at first. In fact, all through the book I just wanted to tell Trina to quit being so self-absorbed and get a life. She and her friends Thea, Sara, Donte, and Frankie, are, at the beginning of the story, absorbed in righting petty injustices with equally petty acts of retribution: call someone a hateful name, and Thea or one of the others will trip you at recess. Carlos (not a friend), however, is so weird and so disruptive and so annoying that his actions call for a plan that will stop his trouble-making once and for all. Trina thinks of herself as a “good girl” who just has to to get into trouble every once in a while. Her friends have equally well-drawn personalities, and the way the author used the events in the story to reveal his characters’ depths was one of my favorite aspects of the book. My most un-favorite aspect was the language: lots of OMG, God’s name used in vain as punctuation. The way the characters talked was also revealing, but I didn’t enjoy it at all. In fact I almost put the book down and quit, but the final scene got me. As Trina foresees/recounts the eighth grade futures of all the main characters in the book, the story becomes a poignantly bittersweet reflection on growing up and missed opportunities.

My favorite of these three seventh grade coming-of-age novels was N.A. Nelson’s Bringing the Boy Home. Tirio was cast out of the Takunami tribe at the age of six —by his own mother who placed him in a “corpse canoe” and sent him out into the current of the Amazon River. Tirio’s maimed foot made him a liability to the tribe, and he would never be able to pass the test of manhood. Rescued by an American anthropologist, Sara, Tirio goes to the United States, receives medical help for his foot, and grows up as normal soccer-playing American boy. But he doesn’t forget about his soche seche tente, his thirteen year old test of manhood, and now seven years after he left the Amazon, he’s being called back by the spirits, the good Gods, and by his father, the one who said he was too crippled to ever become a real man.

This story, although fictional, reminded me of so many things: first, the true story of Jim Elliot and Nate Saint who died in an attempt to bring the gospel to the isolated Auca/Waorani tribe in Amazonian Ecuador. Tirio’s Takunami tribe and its customs are made-up, but the author traveled in the Amazon jungle and incorporated what he learned there into his book. I was also struck by the parallels between Tirio’s fictional experience of clashing cultures, and the experience of a boy who is the adopted son of a close friend of mine. “Noah”, my friend, was born in Sierra Leone, and his arm was deliberately mangled in the fighting that has been going on there for some time. Christian missionaries brought “Noah” to the U.S. where he was able to receive medical care and a new family. (“Noah’s” parent’s died in Sierra Leone.) Like Tirio, “Noah” has been and continues to be challenged as he tries to integrate his cultural heritage and and his new family and American upbringing.

There’s no religious teaching of any kind, certainly not Christianity, in Tirio’s American experience. Tirio continues to believe in and depend upon “the good Gods” of his Takunami tribe with no conflicting messages from a Christian perspective. I think that’s a shame and a missed opportunity because it would be an interesting conflict to explore, but that’s not the book Mr. Nelson chose to write. And the book he did write is good enough, full of descriptive passages that made my mental picture of the Brazilian rain forest vivid and with plenty of action to satisfy the most adventurous of readers.

Bringing the Boy Home is highly recommended, and the other two books are worth reading and discussing if you can get past the narrator’s attitude in both and the casual profanity in Carlos.

A list of the Cybils Middle Grade Fiction nominees with links to panelists’ reviews of each book.

Semicolon reviews of Children’s and YA fiction of 2008, mostly Cybils nominees.

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