Thursday, September 12, 2019

Free Lunch

Ogle, Rex. Free Lunch
September 10th 2019 by Norton Young Readers
E ARC from Edelweiss Plus

In this fiction-style memoir, we get the real story of the author's sixth grade year. His family (which includes mother, younger half brother, and the brother's father) struggles financially. Rex is mortified by being on free lunch, which is hard to hide from his friends when the lunch lady makes him give his name and identify that he is in the program every day. He also doesn't like the thrift store clothing he wears, or the neighborhood in which his family lives. He wishes that grocery shopping weren't so painful; his mother won't buy the "fun" food he wants because she often doesn't have enough money for the entire order and sometimes must put items back. He does have friends at school, but they don't know what is really going on in his life; even when they want him to play football and he can't because of the money, he doesn't tell them his reason. When things go from bad to worse, the family ends up in subsidized housing and receives food stamps, and several items, including Rex's boom box, are pawned and not retrieved. The one bright spot in Rex's life is his abuela, who visits and brings food, clothing, and gifts. Unfortunately, the mother, who has a violent temper, does not allow Rex to keep those things, and goes so far as to throw away the food. Even though the teachers are not as supportive of Rex as they should be (he feels that one teacher in particular discriminates against him because he is poor, and she eventually apologizes for the way she has treated him), he is able to make good choices, and doesn't get involved in some of the really bad pursuits that some of the neighborhood children do. Eventually, both of the adults have jobs, Rex has a bit of a break from the struggles of poverty, and he tells his friend Ethan about his background.
Strengths: While we are seeing more books with economically diverse characters, I am not sure how many of them are #ownvoices stories, so this is good to see. We do have a language arts unit where students need to read a memoir of their choice, and this is a short, fast paced book that would appeal to reluctant readers. It's helpful to have books that show different experiences, so that students who don't have Rex's struggles can learn to be empathetic, and students who have similar experiences can find out that they are not alone.
Weaknesses: I wish that there had been more explanation for the way Rex's mom acted. She reinforces every bad stereotype of "trailer trash" (a term which is used by the author). Since this is nonfiction, the author couldn't really make her a more sympathetic character, but I'm not sure that readers who might hold prejudices (through their parents' comments) about people who struggle financially will understand that this is not the way all people in poverty act. While there are lists of resources at the back of the book, some light shed on the mother's behavior (a cursory Internet search indicates she may have had some mental health issues that were not addressed) would possibly help children who are in a similar circumstance.
What I really think: This hit a bit close to home. There are lots of different ways of dealing with all life circumstances, and it's good to see a variety of narratives, but when books come close to my own experiences but then diverges, it's hard to keep that in mind. While I had a stable childhood (despite the number of relatives I had who did indeed live in trailer parks), my own children were raised for a long time in a neighborhood where thrift store clothing and economic insecurity were common and unremarkable. My children were very close to being on free lunch, yet did  not complain about powered milk, scratch-and-dent boxed food, or hand-me-downs. I think I will purchase this book, because it has an important story, but I do worry that it will cause well off readers (about half of my students) to think that poor people are poor because they are mean and don't try. Anyone have thoughts about this? Again, I feel like my own experiences are coloring my reaction to this book.

Ms. Yingling


  1. Your thoughts about this are really interesting. It sounds like a book that would bring up lots of issues in a book club discussion.

  2. I think the way to steer the conversation is why the characters seem to mean. Is it their exhaustion at having to juggle needs and money, depression, their own upbringing and loving their normal? Lots of variables and ways to interpret.