When Ms. Bixby announces that she is very sick and won't be able to finish out the last weeks of the school year (or even finish the last 20 pages of the class read aloud, The Hobbit) Brand, Steve and Topher decide that they want to give her a proper last day. That's the nutshell summary of John David Anderson's newest novel, Ms. Bixby's Last Day. I knew that this wasn't going to be an easy read, but there was no way I was not going to read (and love) Ms. Bixby's Last Day, tissue box by my side. Anderson's book is a surprise, a delight and a reminder of why I work with kids, how a teacher (or other thoughtful adult) can make a powerful, even if seemingly small at the time, impact on a child's life and how valuable it is to be reminded of this by a work of art. But will kids want to read it?
That's what I wondered as I pored over every page - exactly who would I recommend this book to? One thing that I especially love (among many) about Ms. Bixby's Last Day is the fact that the story is told by three narrators, all sixth grade boys. In this age of (slouching toward) equality, it is a challenge to find a middle grade novel featuring all boy or all girl protagonists. The formula, for fantasy, anyway, is always boys and girls, with boys usually as the main character - think Harry, Ron and Hermione or Percy, Grover and Annabeth. It's a genuine treat to hear the voices of three different boys over the course of 300 pages. Anderson has created three characters, each of whom, to varying degrees, has things going on at home that make Ms. Bixby's unique attention so meaningful. Topher is a gifted artist who misses the way his family was before the birth of his little sister and his mom's return to the workforce. Steve, who once memorized every country (and capital, population and official language) for fun, feels inferior to his older sister, a perfectionist who meets their parents's high standards. Then there is Brand, the quiet, driving force of this trio and the feat they try to pull off while ditching school one Friday. Raised by his dad, Brand's life changed drastically when his father was paralyzed by an accident at work and his will to get back on his feet, metaphorically and literally, disappeared.
Topher, who has classified teachers into six categories, puts Ms. Bixby into the "Good Ones" column - the kind of teachers who you "find yourself actually paying attention in class, even if it's not art class. They're the teachers you actually want to fo back an say hi to the next year. The ones you don't want to disappoint." Ms. Bixby has a talent for recognizing, valuing and nurturing what is special in her students and also for making them think. When the class is deprived of the chance to say goodbye to Ms. Bixby because the treatment for her pancreatic cancer has been pushed up, Brand, Steve and Topher decide to ditch school and take the bus to the hospital to see her. Armed with a special knowledge of how Ms. Bixby would spend her last day on earth (this was a writing prompt she gave her students, one of whom asked her what she would do) the boys carry backpacks, cash, a picnic blanket, a wine glass and more with them as they stop to try to buy the things they need for the special day and meet with obstacles they never saw coming. As Ms. Bixby's Last Day unfolds, each boy narrating part of their odyssey to make it from school to the hospital downtown, Anderson reveals things about their lives and their relationships with Ms. Bixby. He also throws in some tension between the friends along with more than a few hilarious scenes and suspenseful twists as well. Ms. Bixby's Last Day is, as Anderson says in his acknowledgements, a quiet book. There is more reflection than action, but Anderson's story telling style is masterful, with hints to meaningful moments that are revealed powerfully in later pages or chapters. Although a quiet book, Ms. Bixby's Last Day is always moving forward with Steve, Brand and Topher as they make their way to room 428 in St. Mary's Hospital.
So who will I recommend Ms. Bixby's Last Day book to when school starts up again in August? I'm still not sure. But, during the last week of June I was sorting discarded library books to give away and a coworker's daughter, who just finished 7th grade and is quiet and a bit shy, was helping me. I asked her what she likes to read and she responded adventure stories, real life, no fantasy. I pulled a few books off the shelf for her and we sat and read, waiting for people to come to the book give away. A couple of middle school boys zipped by on their bikes and stopped to talk to me, getting a little goofy when they saw my helper. They circled around on their bikes showing off and my helper and I talked about how dumb middle school boys can be. Then I told her about the book I was reading, Ms. Bixby's Last Day, and how it started off with sixth grade boys talking about cooties and being goofy and how they wanted to visit their sick teacher. Later, as we were packing up the leftover books, she surprised me (mostly because of our discussion about dopey boys) by asking if she could borrow my copy of Ms. Bixby's Last Day. I gave her my Advance Readers Copy with the promise that she send a note to work with her mom in August telling me how she liked it.
Source: Review Copy