Bigger than a Bread Box by Laurel Snyder

Just a few days after hearing her parents argue, or her mother yelling at her dad when the lights went out, and thinking that the argument had blown over Rebecca came downstairs for breakfast to find that her mother had all their mismatched suitcases laid out. Her mom told her they were going home, meaning they were leaving Baltimore for Atlanta and her gran. By the time she got home from school, the car was packed her two-year-old brother Lew strapped in his car seat, and she was
told to get in the car.

‘It’s time to go’, [mom] snapped. Then she closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She let it out. ‘Don’t worry, you’ll see your father again. This isn’t the end of the world.’

But for twelve-year-old Rebecca, it was the end of the world. Torn from her father, her school and best friend without warning with her father running after the car, was pretty devastating for Rebecca. She stopped talking to her mother. Even when they arrived at Gran’s, she continued to boycott her mother. Looking for a phone to call her dad, she stumbled into the staircase to the attic where she found an old, red bread box. Having been wishing for all sorts of things, like her dad to show up, for a book. She found one in the bread box. Pretty soon she was wishing for all sorts of stuff that the bread box was able to proBigger-than-a-Bread-Boxvide, including money, candy for her brother, a phone, except it couldn’t bring her her dad.

Starting a new school, Rebecca, who “had never been the New Girl before,” was told to sit next to Hannah, the queen of the popular girls, and was introduced as Becky. She’d never been Becky, and never hung out with the cool girls. At home she hung out with Mary Kate; they read a lot, went to the park and liked to cook and bake together. Suddenly she found herself adopting the manners of the cool girls.

But at Gran’s she began to play with Lew and take him for walks in his stroller. She started to see that she wasn’t the only one that missed her dad. And she learned one of the reasons her mother had left home. It’s not long before all this accumulating stuff that doesn’t belong to her and being fake with her new friends blows up in her face.

At first I found the magic box kind of a strange plot device, but I still couldn’t put it down.  I realized that after an episode like she experienced, wishing and magical thinking would be about all that was left. In fact Snyder portrays the divorce and its effect on Rebecca and Lew incredibly vividly. Her Gran is supportive and loving but forthright about how Rebecca is going to have “to do some stretching.” In a way, he Gran is the person who provides her the support she needs during this chaotic period. After what could have turned into a disaster, Rebecca learns to speak for herself.

This is definitely a tear jerker. I decided to read it after reading a glowing review of Snyder’s forthcoming book, SWAN: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova . Even though they are totally unrelated, I’m very glad I read it.

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The Life and Times of Benny Alvarez by Peter Johnson

Benny-AlvarezBenny Alvarez’s brother calls him Mr. Negativity.  He loves to argue and be contrary and his mother complains that he always sees the glass half empty.  Benny’s grandfather is really sick, his brother, Crash, is like a whirling dervish of uncontrolled energy and feelings, and he’s had it with the girls at school who think they are so smart, especially Claudine.  He has been in a battle with Claudine since 5th grade, arguing over everything, but now in seventh grade, he’s begun to blush when she sees him him looking at her.

Benny and his two best friends are into words and have a club, the Word Warriors.  They are into the Book, the thesaurus, and each day one throws out a word to see if the others can come up with synonyms.  Of course Claudine takes Latin, so she can figure out the meaning of words from their roots.  Words are at the heart of this book, which can hurt or heal.  The story takes a turn when the gorgeous teacher, Ms. Butterfield, or Ms. D for demigoddess, introduces a section on poetry.  When asked what he thinks about poetry, Benny thinks “My take is that I think less about poetry than I do about the two glands on Spot’s rear end that the vet told us to massage twice a week.”  But he says, he doesn’t really think about it.

The girls love poetry and think it’s all about verse and rhyme; the boys hate it, but they prefer not to rhyme or use verse.  Claudine and Benny get locked in a competition to see who can write and deliver the best poem.  Around the same time, Claudine’s dog dies and Benny’s grandfather has a second stroke.  Both of them are forced to look at things and each other from a different angle.

The Life and Times of Benny Alvarez is a light-hearted read which covers some serious territory but has some really funny parts as well.

The War that Saved my Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

On September 1, 1938, British Operation Pied Piper began under which British children were evacuated from cities in order 20912424to protect them from anticipated German bombing. On September 3 Britain declared war on Germany. In The War that Saved my Life, Ada and Jamie, like thousands of children from London, were sent to the countryside. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Their mam only wanted to send Jamie, since, as she said to Ada, “Who’d want you? Nobody, that’s who. Nice people don’t want to look at that foot… You can’t leave. You never will. You’re stuck here, right here in this room, bombs or no.” Ada had a club foot and had never been allowed to leave their tiny apartment. She only stared out their window at the kids playing and was sad when Jamie had become independent, running around with his pals. But she had a plan, “You find out where we have to go and what time we have to be there…We’re leaving together, we are.”

Leaving is harder than she thought, not sneaking out on their sleeping mother part,  but getting to the school. Ada had never walked before, only crawled on her scabby knees,  but at one point Peter White, whom Ada had watched from the window, offered Ada a piggy back ride to the school. From there they were taken by train, with no food or bathroom stops. But Ada caught sight of a girl on a horse running through a field and flying over a stone fence, and she decided, “I’m going to do that.” Finally the train stopped and a teacher ordered all of the children out to use the loos. This was Ada’s first time to see herself in a mirror and she saw “the shabbiest, nastiest-looking girl (she’d) ever seen.” Then they were lined up like “fish on a slab” to be chosen by the villagers. After all of the children were chosen, Jamie and Ada remained, but the iron-faced woman, a member of the WVS (Women’s Volunteer Service) took charge. She ordered a single reclusive woman, the “not that nice” Miss Smith, to take them in.

Ada becomes transformed living with Susan, who has a pony in the field, left by her friend Becky who died. Despite her bravery in teaching herself to ride the pony, she remains defensive, dubious and fearful of the day she will have to return home. Despite Susan’s initial skepticism about taking in the children, it turns out that Susan’s father, too, had been very disappointed in her, she slowly grows to love them.

This is a wonderful book with a few lapses, but they don’t take away from the experience of reading it. It reminds me of Goodnight Mr. Tom, another book about an evacuee with an abusive mother who winds up living with a recluse.