Monday, September 5, 2016

Review: Ms. Bixby's Last Day by John David Anderson

I try not to read other reviews of a book before I read and review it myself, but this one came across my radar several times before it appeared in my TBR pile.

Ms. Bixby's Last Day
$16.99 HC

Everyone knows there are different kinds of teachers. The boring ones, the mean ones, the ones who try too hard, the ones who stopped trying long ago. The ones you’ll never remember, and the ones you want to forget. Ms. Bixby is none of these. She’s the sort of teacher who makes you feel like school is somehow worthwhile. Who recognizes something in you that sometimes you don’t even see in yourself. Who you never want to disappoint. What Ms. Bixby is, is one of a kind.
Topher, Brand, and Steve know this better than anyone. And so when Ms. Bixby unexpectedly announces that she won’t be able to finish the school year, they come up with a risky plan—more of a quest, really—to give Ms. Bixby the last day she deserves. Through the three very different stories they tell, we begin to understand what Ms. Bixby means to each of them—and what the three of them mean to each other.

Any time the big name reviewers rave about a feel-good story, I approach it with some trepidation, hardening myself against too much schmaltz. 

The folders. The folders in her desk. Okay, Anderson, you got me. Sniffle.

Backing up a bit: any time an author can carry off writing in different voices, my hat is off to them. Here we have three boys, all the same age, telling the story in alternating chapters. Anderson could have fallen into a trope of using different vernacular to help differentiate, but the truth is, three boys who hang out together are probably going to talk much the same. Being the same age, with similar interests, their inner monologue (which we see a lot of) is going to be similar as well. Anderson still manages to make each a distinct personality, so it never gets confusing. 

The three are embarked on the same quest of course, for reasons that are as different as they are similar. Being preteen boys (if I may stereotype a bit here myself), their quest goes continually awry, but thanks to the things Ms. Bixby has taught them, as well as their own strengths, they find a kind of success. 

(And then I bawl my eyes out.)

This would be a fantastic book to read out loud with a class - if you are brave enough to be compared with the perfect teacher! Adages from famous philosophers and Ms. Bixby herself are peppered through the book, offering an obvious discussion/writing extension. Some other wonderful lines:

"We're not like peas in a pod or anything. But sometimes you just need a place to sit and eat lunch." - Brand

"I suppose there is some strange comfort in it - this idea that the numbers are sometimes wrong, that there are still mysteries in the universe, and that you don't always have to know why you do the things you do. Sometimes, despite all evidence to the contrary, things can go your way." - Steven

"I hear that alcohol makes people do strange things, but I always assumed you had to drink it first." - Topher

See? Three distinct personalities, with very different back stories, and one remarkable teacher. Is she too good to be true? Maybe, maybe not (a certain 4th grade teacher comes to mind), but it doesn't matter. She and the boys all demonstrate the power a few kind words can have, as well as the power we have to  just be more or better versions of ourselves. Afraid I will have to agree with the reviewers on this one, and encourage you to put it on your must-have list!

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