Have to say that while my students LOVE books about people with problems, they don't love "quirky". Adults seem to love characters that are far outside of the realm of everyday, but second to "nothing happens", "The characters were weird" is probably the biggest complaint I hear! Obviously, this may be very different at other schools, but when I read the following three books in quick succession, it made me think about what makes a book about a dysfunctional family appealing to my students.
Booth Coe. Kinda Like Brothers.
26 August 2014, Push (Scholastic)
E ARC from Netgalley.com
Jarrett's mother takes in foster children in Newark. Usually, they are babies who have been abused and need care for just a few days, but when special needs infant Treasure arrives, she comes accompanied by her brother, Kevon, who is older than Jarrett. Jarrett has to share his room, and he's a bit irritated that he doesn't get to find out what chain of events brought the children to his family. Kevon is very protective of Treasure, but the boys slowly make an uneasy peace. Jarrett's mother has a boyfriend, Terrence, who is very kind to the children, but wishes that Jarrett's mother would stop taking in foster children and go back to college. Jarrett struggles in school and is spending the summer in a remedial program that he must pass before he can be promoted into the 6th grade. He feels that his mother should spend more time with him than with the baby. Eventually, the social worker comes and talks to Kevon, who is very upset. Jarrett finds out that Kevon's mother is dead, his father is missing and has mental problems that interfere with his ability to care for the children. Things come to a crisis, but there is good news, too-- while on a family camping trip, Terrence has asked Jarrett if he can marry Jarrett's mom, and while Jarrett doesn't pass 5th grade, he gets to go to a special all boys school in the fall.
Strengths: This really, really good. There are real, serious problems, but they are treated in a highly constructive way. Terrence sometimes argues with Jarrett's mother, which concerns Kevon, but the two never fight. Terrence instructs the boys about the fact that they may some day be pulled over by the police just because they are black, and tells them how they should act, which is something I don't know if I've ever seen in a book. He also addresses the issue that the boys can still be men if they don't like girls, and there is a brief discussion between Jarrett and his friend Ennis, who mentions that he may never like girls, and Jarrett is okay with that. The situations are realistically portrayed, especially between the boys. Very, very good.
Weaknesses: This is the author's first book for younger readers; if I remember correctly, I didn't buy the other books because of the language. I hope that Ms. Booth writes some more for middle grade!
Jonsberg, Barry. The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee
9 September 2014, Chronicle Books
ARC from Baker and Taylor
Candice has many struggles. Her father is at war with her Rich Uncle Brian over a computer software patent, her mother is severely depressed after the Sudden Infant Death of Candice's sister Sky seven years previously, and she is also a breast cancer survivor. Candice is so quirky that some teachers have suggested that she might be "on the spectrum", although Candice and her family seem to dismiss this. Even quirkier is her only friend, Douglas Benson from Another Dimension, who fell from a tree and ever since has had a change of personality, believing that his parents are only facsimiles and that he has to return to his own dimension by jumping from another tree. Candice tries to get her mother to be less depressed and to find a way to reconcile her father and uncle, but her attempts are ill-advised and while they eventually achieve the desired results, they also make things worse before they get better.
Strengths: If Australian literature is popular in your school, this would fit the bill. I worry about the Australians in a completely different way than I worry about the British. This certainly had some funny moments, and Candice definitely danced her own dance.
Weaknesses: The entire family, as well as Douglas, desperately needed counseling, and their lot seemed more sad than amusing to me. The mother is still so depressed she doesn't get out of bed most days SEVEN YEARS after the death of an infant? Frequent Readers know that I have NO patience with this. There's really no constructive help shown for this poor family, even by Rich Uncle Brian, although he tries.
Tougas, Shelley. The Graham Cracker Plot.
2 September 2014, Roaring Brook Press
E ARC from Netgalley; ARC from Baker and Taylor
***SPOILER ALERT*** Don't read review if you don't want to know key plot elements. Can't fully do book justice without revealing them.
Daisy has a different type of dysfunctional family. Her mother, a recovering alcoholic, is doing her best to raise her in a trailer park, but Daisy's father is in jail for burning down a house during a chemical experiment, which is why Daisy refers to him as "the Chemist". Graham's mother is Daisy's mother's sponsor, and when Daisy's mother decides to go on a vacation with her boyfriend, Daisy has to stay at Graham's trailer. This works well for her, because she has constructed a plan to break her father out of the minimum security prison in which he is incarcerated. She and Graham approach family friend Ashley to drive them to the prison and then to Canada. Ashley drives, but was in a very bad car accident and is barely functional as an adult and prone to bad headaches. When the group runs in to heavy rain, Ashley is unable to continue driving, and they find a house belonging to "church people" in which they stay for a few days. When someone comes to feed the animals, they know they must leave, and find that Ashley's car battery is dead.(Highlight for spoilers.) They steal a truck, the dog, and a miniature pony, and end up crashing the truck in to the prison fence. Oddly enough, their attempt to rescue the Chemist is not successful and it turns out that he really blew up the house because he was manufacturing a drug. The book is told in the format of Daisy's letter to the judge.
Strengths: Again, this comes down on the funny side. Graham is quirky, Daisy is quirky, even Daisy's grandmother is quirky. Students may find the adventure in trashing the people's house amusing; I was glad that Daisy's mother makes the group go back and clean it up even though the judge doesn't make them. Social workers are involved, at least!
Weaknesses: It is hard to believe that any child would really think it was a good idea to break a parent out of prison and actually get as far as Daisy did.