Ms. Bixby's Last Day by John David Anderson
Walden Pond Press
Rating: 5 stars
You've probably already realized that most middle grade books are about a quest. The recent Newbery winner The Inquisitor's Tale is about a handful of young children in the Middle Ages who need to escape persecution and save holy texts. In another middle grade I recently read with Lorelei, The Last Boy at St Edith's, the lone boy at an all-girls school embarks on a quest to get kicked out.
Ms. Bixby's Last Day involves a quest, too, and a wonderfully unique one. Here's the story:
Topher, Brand, and Steve are three boys whose teacher is "one of the great ones." They each appreciate Ms Bixby in a different, special, sweet way; I love how you don't get the full story of why they feel so drawn to her until later in the book. The story is told through alternating first person voice--each boy gets their own chapter and the story unfolds from these similar but yet different points of view. I love how this sheds light on their own individual story as well as the bigger one of which they're all a part.
Anyway, because they really like and respect her, they're sobered when Ms Bixby announces to the class that she has cancer. To make matters worse, she is then too sick to attend her own goodbye party. The boys decide this won't do; they need to go out, find her, and have a goodbye party for her wherever she is, since she can't come to them.
The boys skip school and navigate through the real world to the hospital--with great adventures on the city streets that both boy and girl readers will lap up. But, like any good middle grade quest, the adventure is simply the way in which the characters learn about themselves and, in this one, a little more about each other.
What's so great about this book? Two things:
First, I think it's hard for a middle grade book to be both emotional and funny. This book balances the emotional heaviness of the subject--a favorite teacher is going to die--with the quirkiness and grossness and silliness of middle school boys. It's a fantastic reminder to young and old readers alike that it's important to find a reason to smile and laugh in the face of hard times. And hard times will come to those young and old readers alike. My children have lost two great-uncles in the past two years, one dying from kidney cancer, the other dying from complications after a stroke. And yet, we find a reason to come together in our clan of five and with extended family to laugh and play and bond.
Second, I love that the main characters are boys. Boy books are so often full of boogers and poop and potty-mouth words, and while this book does sprinkle in a little bit of that here and there because...well, call me sexist but boys will be boys..., boys are also emotional beings. It seems obvious to point out that they are full of as wide a range of emotions as their female counterparts, but I think we grown-ups forget that. I love that Topher, Brand, and Steve feel so much for their teacher that they feel the need to go find her and say good-bye in a way that feels right to them.
The party that finally happens does involve Jack Daniels, which keeps that final goodbye chuckle-worthy. Though you might, like me, tear up as well.
One final note: Lorelei read this first, and then Ben and I started listening to the audiobook together on a long drive. He's not finished listening to it yet, but on our Spring Break we cozied up for 30-45 minutes at a time listening together. It was a nice break from me reading aloud to him--it put us on the same pillow.