Ms. Bixby’s Last Day

msbixbyby John David Anderson
First sentence: “Rebecca Roundabush has cooties.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s about sixth graders, and it’s a little more mature in content for the younger set. That said, it’s in the Middle Grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Everyone has one elementary teacher (I hope) that they remember fondly, that made school a fantastic experience. Mine was my 5th grade teacher, Ms. Westenskow, who cross-country skied to school one winter day, who  made the Revolutionary War interactive, for whom we would all do anything for. I don’t know what’s happened to her over the years (we moved after 5th grade and I started over), but I still remember fifth grade fondly.

Ms. Bixby is that teacher, the one who believes in the potential of each child, the one who reads cool books, the one who is cool, and who makes learning fun. And friends Topher, Steven, and Brand are among those three. So, when Ms. Bixby gets diagnosed with pancreatic cancer it devastates them (and the class, but these guys are our narrators) and after she leaves before the class-planned party, these three boys decide to take Ms. Bixby’s last day to her.

And thus begins our adventure. Skipping school on a Friday, the boys head out to get Ms. Bixby the things they think she needs: a good book, an excellent cheesecake, wine, and McDonald’s french fries. None of them are easy to get, but that’s part of the fun of this book.  It’s one part adventure, one part reminiscing as we get to know Topher, Steve, and Brand through the chapters they narrate, and it’s one part love story to the power of a great educator.

And, yes, I cried. But I felt that the book earned those tears, which is always a good thing.

Excellent.

Fish in a Tree

by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
First sentence: “It’s always there.”
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Content: The chapters are short, and while there are some bigger words, there’s nothing that a 3rd grader couldn’t handle. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Ally doesn’t like school. Part of that is the result of her moving so much — her dad’s in the military, currently deployed in Iraq/Afghanistan (it didn’t say; I’m assuming this) — of it is because Ally can’t read. It’s a fact she’s hidden by becoming a troublemaker and through her art, but whenever she tries to read, the words swim, her head hurts, and she just. can’t. do. it.

Enter in Mr. Daniels, the permanent sub for her regular sixth-grade teacher who’s off on maternity leave. He picks up on Ally’s defense mechanisms, and realizes that there’s more going on than meets the eye. He espouses the believe that not everyone’s smart in the same way (yay for that!), and draws on Ally’s strength, giving her the confidence to make friends — Albert, the science geek, and Keisha, a baker extraordinaire — and to stand up to the classroom bully, Shay.

There are some nitpicky things that bothered me throughout that kept me from loving this as much as I wanted to. First, why did the teacher have to be male? I’m torn on this one: on the one hand, it’s showing a man doing things that are “normally” reserved for women. He’s concerned about his students, he’s caring, and he reaches out. Not to mention that he’s a man in a female-heavy profession. However, it seems to me in books like this — where a teacher saves a struggling student — the teacher is always male. It’s the men who get to think outside the box, who find ways to connect with the struggling students, who make changes within the system. And that bothered me.

Additionally, there’s a point when Albert comes out of his shell to fight back against his bullies, in order to protect Ally and Keisha from them. Perhaps that was in character for Albert, but it bothered me deeply. Why did he need to protect them? I initially thought it was because they were his friends — maybe he’d do the same for boys who were his friends — but then he says something about “never hitting a girl”and I cringed.

On the other hand, I was glad that Hunt included a broad spectrum of personalities and classes: there are people who are hyper, middle of the road kids, rich kids, kids on free lunches. The usual suspects — drugs, bad parents, etc –aren’t anywhere to be seen. The focus, really, is on celebrating our differences, and recognizing that intelligence isn’t tied to doing well on tests. And that’s worth celebrating.

So, while it’s an uneven book, I’m glad it’s out there.

Mr. Terupt Falls Again

by Rob Buyea
ages: 11+
First sentence: “It was one of those farts that stunk so back you could taste it.”
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Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at work.
Others in the series: Because of Mr. Terupt

Mr. Terupt is back with his class — including our narrators Peter, Alexia, Luke, Jessica, Anna, Danielle, and Jeffrey — for a sixth grade year. Like last year, there are small conflicts within the class. Alexia is on the verge of running wild, wanting to act older than her age. Jeffrey finds an abandoned baby by the side of the road. Peter is dealing with pressure from his parents to attend a private junior high and high school, something that he doesn’t want to do. Danielle’s family is dealing with some sort of external lawsuits, and her period starts. In addition, Mr. Terupt hasn’t fully recovered from his accident last year. And he asks Ms. Newberry to marry him, turning the wedding plans over to his class.

In short: it’s another eventful year for Mr. Terupt and his class.

Much like the first one, this is a good novel. There are a lot of discussion points, the use of the mulitple narrators gives a unique voice to the story, and I appreciated Buyea’s use of classic middle grade books. However, I think the biggest drawback to this one is that while all the elements of the first book are there, it really seems been there, done that. Mr. Terupt is still a great teacher, caring immensely for his students. The conflicts are still small ones, and the kids are still learning how to be grown up. In short: it’s pretty much the same book all over again.

I’m with Ms. Yingling on this one: we need more wrestling stories and fewer about wonderful teachers and their classes.

Because of Mr. Terupt

by Rob Buyea
ages: 10+
First sentence: “It’s our bad luck to have teachers in this world, but since we’re stuck with them, the best we can do is hope to get a brand-new one instead of a mean old fart.”
Support your local independent bookstore, buy it there!

Ever have your life and perceptions completely changed by the influecne of one person?

Ever have a teacher that made school amazing, that you will always remember as completely wonderful, no matter what? (Hopefully, the answer is yes.)

Mr. Terupt, a fifth grade teacher, is one of those people. New at teaching, he is not only enthusiastic, but wise and inspiring. Told through the eyes of seven of his students — Jessica, Alexia, Peter, Luke, Danielle, Anna and Jeffrey –this is the story of the year they had with Mr. Terupt, and how his subtle influence changed their lives for the better.

It’s a quiet book, the life-changing accident notwithstanding. The impact is local, the challenges small. What really impresses about this book was that Buyea juggled seven different narrators, giving each one a unique voice and role in this story. I’m sure this particular story could have been told another way, but it wouldn’t have been nearly so effective. Because it’s a small story, it’s essential that the characters pull their weight, and Buyea makes sure that happens. It’s not anything major or flashy; the beauty lies in the simplicity of the tale. It’s accessible to kids, and yet packs a powerful punch for those older than fifth grade. There are things to think about, to talk about, to ponder on. But, perhaps best of all, it does all this without being preachy.

It’s an excellent book, and Buyea is definitely an author to keep an eye out for.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)