by Pat Schmatz
Middle School Candlewick 229 pp.
9/11 978-0-7636-5334-7 $15.99
e-book ed. 978-0-7636-5614-0 $15.99
“Stupid bluefish” Travis Roberts finds “lowlife trailer-trash loser” Vida “Velveeta” Wojciehowski in a lovely, understated book that celebrates the possibility of a kind and humane friendship between an eighth-grade girl and boy. Travis and Velveeta meet while both are hurting from losses in their lives: Travis’s beloved dog has disappeared and his alcoholic grandfather has summarily moved them from their old house; Velveeta’s friend and mentor Calvin, who introduced her to the world of books and old movies and offered her sanctuary from her unhappy home life, has just died. They both have weighty secrets to protect. Like two lonely planets in a tentative gravitational pull, they spiral toward each other. Travis’s story is told in third person, each chapter followed by a first-person narrative by Velveeta, and it’s a testament to Schmatz’s craft that she so eloquently brings two ordinary young people to life on the page, rooting the novel in subtleties that make all the difference — Travis’s pretty eyes “full of words,” his “shadow smile,” the gestures of a boy and a girl discovering ways to be themselves in the world. With allusions to To Kill a Mockingbird and Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief, this novel is also an ode to the significance of reading in the lives of young people and to a teacher who knows the power literature can wield. Unique and original, believable and poignant, this is a book with power of its own.