Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Soto, Gary. Facts of Life: Stories (3 out of 4 stars)--
As state testing approaches, I give an annual presentation to my students on the essay-writing and reading tips and tricks I have accumulated throughout the years, and I always start my discussion of the essays by imploring my students to remember their audience. I advise them that if elephants score the essays, write about peanuts. Gary Soto knows this maxim well. He never talks above his audience, a potential insult to an adult but a great compliment to a YA writer. If a 10-year-old wants to read Dubliners or Goodbye, Columbus, she can get it at the public library, but most 10-year-old kids just want to read about 12-year-old kids like themselves, not angst-ridden, overly-complex adult children. In his latest short story collection Facts of Life, Mr. Soto once again displays his ability to be inside of the mind of a middler. In most of the ten stories contained in this collection, the characters simply and straightforwardly experience, as a regular feature of their lives, all of the awkwardness, joy, nervousness, excitement, paranoia, exultation, over-confidence, inspiration, and boredom we observe in our students every day.
In the best of the ten stories contained in this collection, the protagonists have small epiphanies that help to comfort them with the knowledge that they will grow up and everything will be OK. In “Identity Theft,” Ana Hernandez must confront the horror of a new girl with her exact name—and one who is better looking, smarter, more talented, and, ultimately, more popular, than herself. Now that she has been violated and her dignity has been wrenched from her, Original Ana wonders what else the new Ana can steal from her: “She was only twelve, but perhaps years from now when she got her first credit card, this new Ana would steal it . . . Then she swallowed with fear. She imagined having a baby that was claimed by the new Ana!” (48). It is only at Ana’s moment of realization about her identity and place in life that she can commence with her life. In “The Babysitter,” Rachel’s and Freddie’s evening becomes increasingly uncomfortable when a punk-goth babysitter named Keri ruins dinner, smokes, gives the kids coffee and sugar, dyes second grader Freddie’s hair orange and green, and plays loud punk music. At first, the normally reserved Rachael heartily disapproves, but somewhere in the middle of the mayhem, she admits to herself that letting go feels good: “But when they returned to the living room and Keri put Spew Face on the stereo, Rachael had to giggle and join in bouncing to the music. It felt fun; it felt wild” (77). But as uncomfortable as it usually is, Rachael can only march toward adulthood when she confronts her choices about what type of person she wants to be and she decides on her fundamental mores and values. In “D in English,” Ryan Gonzalez tries to avoid the consequences of his “D” by sneaking out and staying away from his house, but he finds reminders of his failure everywhere he goes. Ironically, when Ryan sees his mother at the grocery store having a nice exchange with a boy his age who helped her with her packages, he gets jealous, temporarily forgetting that he is avoiding her: “He narrowed his eyes at the boy and hurried away, ashamed—no, mad. Who was that kid, anyway? And why was the kid helping Ryan’s mother? That was his duty” (164). It is only at the end of the story, after witnessing a life-changing ceremony, that Ryan is ready to confront his own demons and begin the journey to becoming a successful, mature man.
Although all of the players in this collection are California Latinos, Facts of Life could chronicle the lives of any ten American middlers. Gary Soto presents universal themes easily, and characters’ normal feelings are somewhat amplified for dramatic tension but not ridiculously overblown like a manga novel. These short stories often present a naturalistic slice of life of the daily lives of regular folks who happen to be 12 and 13 years old. At first glance, many of the stories seem predictable and hackneyed, but sophisticated adult readers must remember that everything old is new again: stale to an English teacher or a librarian may be fresh to a 10-year-old. At second glance, this collection seems fresh enough to be tasty.

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