The Fourth Stall, by Chris Rylander 314 pp, RL 4

The Fourth Stall by Chris Rylander came out in February of 2011, right about the same time Jack Ferraiolo's book The Big Splash came out in paperback. These books have some similarities - middle school, fixers, intrigue. They also share the distinction of being the rare middle grade novels that are reality based, humorous and aimed squarely at boys. And they are both very well written. Do you have any idea how rare a book with these qualities is? And, somehow, magically, Rylander also manages to make The Fourth Stall a very poignant book about friendship and empathy. I started reading The Fourth Stall when it first came out but, I'll be honest here, "boy" books are not my favorite. Although it took me a year to get back to finishing The Fourth Stall, the chance to hear Chris Rylander speak at a conference where he was also receiving the Sid Fleischman Humor Award after reading spurred me on. Best thing I ever did. And so was listening to the audio. Chris's brother, the actor Mike Rylander reads the book and he has an amazing cast of voices.

So, as Chris Rylander (and the fantastic book cover will tell you or you can watch the very funny, beard-y clip below) this book IS directly influenced by The Godfather by Mario Puzo. Christian, main character and narrator, is also known as Mac, short for MacGyver, a show that my seven year old son and nephew have been pretty intrigued with of late, because he can fix problems. One thing I absolutely love and admire about The Fourth Stall in addition to Mac's narrative voice is the way it's structured. Mac is telling us events as they unfold, but he also has some explaining to do, which he doesn't always choose to do. The opening pages of The Fourth Stall are a great example of this:

You ned something?
I can get it for you.
Yo have a problem?
I can solve it.

That's why then come to me. By "they" I mean every kid in the school. First graders up to eighth graders. Everyone comes to me for help, and most of the time I'm happy to provide it. For a small fee of course.

My office is located in the East Wing boys' bathroom, fourth stall from the high window. My office hours are during early recess, lunch and afternoon recess.

Sometimes I do pro bono work. I don't know why free is called pro bono, but it is. If your situation seems important enough, I just may offer my services without the usual fees of money or favors. But that doesn't happen too often. And when it does, it's usually because Vince asks me to.

Vince is my best friend and right hand man. He's a good guy; in addition to being awesome with numbers he's also the most book-smart kid I know, and the best business manager a guy could have. We started this business together, so when he gives me one of those looks that only I know, that says, Hey Mac, you should cut this kid a break and do this one pro bono, I listen to him. I know you shouldn't mix your business ad personal life, but we run a tight operation and have been friends since kindergarten.

Right now you might be wondering how a little blue-eyed sixth grader with shaggy dark brown hair could end up with a business like this? And I don't blame you - I hardly believe it myself sometimes. It's actually a pretty long story that's probably best left for later. So, for now let's just say it involves an old trailer park playground, a vampire, and one angry fourth grader and we'll leave it at that.

We learn a bit about what Mac does and how he came to do his business, but he keeps some things secret. The great thing about Mac, though, is that he knows when to tell his stories and he tells quite a few over the course of the unfolding action in the book. From how he and Vince became best friends to the reason the East Wing boys' bathroom is missing a toilet in the fourth stall to how Mac earned exclusive use privileges for that stall, and other areas of the school, from the janitor and how they came to employ Tyrell Alishouse for special assignments, Mac's stories are crazy, creative and all ring true.

The drama of The Fourth Stall centers around Staples, a high school fixer who plays dirty (game fixing, loan sharking) decides to move in on Mac's territory. Mac and Vince decide to organize a force of their own and hire the nine toughest bullies in school to send a message. However, they quickly learn there is a snitch amidst them and the action heats up, especially when it looks like Vince might be the stool pigeon. Rylander adds yet another layer to this story with the Chicago Cubs and their improbable path to the World Series. Mac and Vince are longtime Cubs fans who test each other constantly with obscure trivia and who are also saving all of their profits for five years to use on tickets to the World Series (as well as "seven-dollar hot dogs, six-dollar soda, souvenirs, and other stuff like that. Plus we'd need Vince's older brother Victor to take us, which meant we'd have to pay for the gas it would take to drive us there. It's only a few hours away, but gas is pretty expensive. Victor's a cool guy, but he'd never do that kind of stuff for free, not even for his little brother.") Six thousand dollars is stashed in Mac's closet, along with an emergency fund that is dwindling quickly as the boys battle Staples. To this Rylander adds that layer of empathy and humanity I mentioned earlier, making this a truly superlative book. The friendship between Mac and Vince is the heart of the book and Rylnader does a great job describing it, layering it with experiences, shared passions and a mutual appreciation of each other's strengths and weaknesses (Mac knows that Vince avoids confrontations.) Rylander believably puts their friendship to the test. Vince, who's father died years ago and who's mother has lost her job, begins to steal from the funds and cook the books to keep his family afloat and his mother from slipping into depression. Mac gradually uncovers this and experiences a range of emotions, culminating in blame just as he is uncovering secrets about Staples and his past. Ultimately, Mac is faced with difficult decisions about his friend and foe at the climax of the novel and the resolution to this situation is both satisfying and believable.

Finally, Rylander is one funny writer. For a good laugh, read his query letter for an adult book he had not actually written sent to a literary agent who generally only represents children's authors. It's a great sample of Rylander's absurd sense of humor. To convey the humor of The Fourth Stall here would take several more quotes but I'll try to give taste here, which is basically going to end up as a laundry list. Vince's grandmother is senile and beloved by Vince and Mac, especially for her catchy sayings like, "don't wash the cat until the raccoon eats his glue stick," and "the only way to eat a pinecone is with turtle gravy and a sense of self-worth." They also appreciate the way she is always talking to the "Pint-size Midnight Moonbeam Workers. Sometimes she'd just say hi, but other times she would thank them for all the money they left in her wallet." Rylander also weaves humor throughout The Fourth Stall with the crazy cast of characters that are too numerous to list, but let it be said that the craziest character in the book, the diminutive, unassuming, well groomed Kitten, an unpredictable psychotic who scares the kids and charms the adults, is based on someone from Chris Rylander's school days. As I sat in a packed room at the SCBWI LA conference the first weekend in August and listened to Rylander give his talk Writing Humor: The Secrets (or lack thereof) of Funny to a PACKED room, my jaw dropped when he revealed that Kitten was based on a real person! Other favorite characters of mine are Tyrell Alishouse, who calls to mind that fantastic Dana Carvey movie Master of Disguise, Great White, a sharky-type kid who, being British is also remarkably pale and a constant source of laughs to the kids for his Britishisms.

Like I said, this could turn into a real laundry list of funny, so I'll stop here. But please, I urge you, do the boys in your life (fourth through eighth grade) a tremendous favor and buy them this book - these books and you will be treating them to some of the smartest, funniest writing on the shelves today as well as a rare treat.

Source: Purchased Book AND Audio Book

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