Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!
While I love John David Anderson's books, I was scared to read this one, because "last" is a word for me that contains expectations of OTT emotion and pathos. But, then, I remembered who I was dealing with. John David Anderson writes books with heart, but they are always, always, always, in tiny, screwball ways, or in ridiculous, massive, exploding building fashion - funny. So, content commentary for this book: Some may need tissues, others might only feel heart pinches and not need them. Most young readers I would expect will come away feeling a bit melancholy, but Anderson artfully ends the novel with its beginning, to help keep the focus on the theme of the story, and to bring the question back to the reader: what would make for your perfect last day?
"We all have moments when we think nobody really sees us. When we feel like we have to act out or be somebody else just to get noticed. But somebody notices, Topher. Somebody sees. Somebody out there probably thinks you're the greatest thing in the whole world. Don't ever think you're not good enough."
MS. BIXBY'S LAST DAY, pp. 232-3
Synopsis: Topher, Steve and Brand are sixth graders in Ms. Bixby's class at Fox Ridge Elementary. They're thoroughly different - Steve is Japanese American and the genius of the group, with his eidetic memory and a head full of stats and detail. Brand is the biggest - calm, serious, full of smart, made-up words, and could probably beat up Trevor Cowly, or even a seventh grader, if he put his mind to it. Topher is the artistic one - full of wild stories and amazing drawings. On the surface, the three of them don't have that much in common, except pizza, video games... and Ms. Bixby. But, a look beneath, and Steve, wilting under the sky-high expectations of his parents is a lot like Topher, withering under the busybusybusy-lack-of-attention from his, who is just like Brand, who is struggling with a father who fell down, but lost the heart to get up again.
When their favorite teacher lets the class know that she's withdrawing from school to fight the cancer she's just been diagnosed with, the three boys - so different, and so much the same - don't know how to manage. To each of them individually, Ms. Bixby has been Their Person - the one who sees something good in them, cheers them on, only minimally rolls her eyes when they're being doofusy, and who never gives up on them. Without her, who are they? When on the day of the planned class farewell party, they arrive at school to find a substitute teacher, they embark on The Plan - a plan to bring the party to her, to make it a perfect last day of school with three of her favorite students. They plot to cut school - which makes Steve's knees shake - and go see her in the hospital. Topher's already imagining chases with police and truant officers. Brand is making detailed lists. The genius is that The Plan will to give Ms. Bixby back everything that she's given to them.
It's ...a disaster.
It's also, perfect.
Observations: I can't say much about The Plan without ruining the story, but I think the genius here lies in the character shading. Anderson takes the time to explain why Brand would pick Steve's nose for him - (it made sense at the time. Kind of) that gives us insight into the rigid rules that Brand is locking himself into. That, in turn, explains at least in part why Steve kind of couldn't stand Brand for a long, long time, and there's another part of Steve that isn't all the way filled yet, at least not by Steve. Topher, whose easy acceptance of Brand is hard for his best friend Steve to accept, likes lots of people and lots of different things, and has a running screenplay in his head that makes him imagine himself to be a lot of other people, all the time. Who wants to be just himself, when he could contain multitudes? All three of these aspects of the boys' characters enlarge the story and help make it memorable.
Conclusion: There really are no perfect books, but this book has both wit and emotional resonance. The imperfection of its characters - and even of Ms. Bixby - step it back from being a overly-sweet paean of tribute to being a slice-of-life-ordinary, rare-and-extraordinary love story between a group of students, and one of The Good Ones; an excellent teacher.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of my personal library. You can find MS. BIXBY'S LAST DAY by John David Anderson at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!