This book was a Newbery Honor book, so I feel a little after-the-fact recommending it. But this year I am trying to read as many Newbery Award winners as I can, and honestly, most of them I just check off when I’m done and move on without a post. After all, there are whole sections devoted to them in libraries and bookstores.
But this story was different. A friend gave me a copy of the audio book, so we listened to it at work. Yes, be jealous of me, I have the kind of office where we do that, out loud, on a regular basis. (There are only two of us, but still.)
The story takes place in Memphis, 1959, and it tackles some impressive issues — segregation, alcoholism, abuse, and stuttering, among others. Despite this, it is not what I would consider an “issue” book; it merely depicts a life in which all of these things occur. The narrator of the story stutters, and his description of the torturous process through which he is able to speak was stunning. Having gone through my early years of schooling with a girl who had a profound stutter, I was given new insight into what she must have dealt with every time she opened her mouth to speak. In the book, what amazed me most was the idea that the narrator edited everything he wanted to say based on the sounds he was able to make. The simple fact that he could not speak his own name was just heartbreaking. In fact, his name is not even spoken until the end of the story.
This story is uplifting, though, as he discovers there are people out there who will always listen, no matter how long it takes him to say what he feels. That most times, it is important to use the precise words, no matter how difficult they are to say. He discovers that not everyone is as they appear, but sometimes, you need to trust your instincts for the ones who are. The story is filled with love and caring. There are people who behave badly, of course, but then there are the rest, who provide large and small moments of wonder. I would say that this is a book for an older middle-grade reader, because it is a book that is more about heart than friendship or baseball, even though they are also themes.
I strongly recommend you listen to this book. I’m not sure I would have truly appreciated the struggles this boy faced if I had not heard it so clearly in each chapter. You could literally hear his pain. If you are reading this book, I think that after a while you might skip over some of the stuttering sounds, and they might lose their potency. Hearing them spoken aloud is jarring and new every time. You never lose the force of his effort. The author’s note at the end, read by the author himself, just confirms what you already knew, that this story is his story, and, while he has not fully overcome his stuttering, he has found a powerful way to make his voice heard.