Favorite Book of 2018
Oliver is very interested in all of the details of the Civil War, so he's thrilled when his 7th grade social studies class is ready to study it. He's less thrilled when Mr. Carrow tells him that he will be working with Ella, and that their topic is a local man, Private Raymond Stone, who died of dysentery without even fighting. It doesn't help that Ella, who hides behind messy hair and disheveled clothes, is in danger of flunking 7th grade unless she does well on the project. Uncomfortable with talking to others, Oliver asks Mr. Carrow if he can work alone on a different topic, and is told no. Ella turns out to be surprisingly smart, and her failing schoolwork and lackadaisical appearance are her way of rebelling against her work obsessed parents who idolize her older sister. After she asks if another classmate, Kevin, is his friend, Oliver realizes that Kevin is one of the few people he would consider a friend, even though Kevin is more interested in his WattPad following than in the Civil War, which is the only topic of conversation Oliver usually has.
After making his peace with Kevin and Ella, the social studies project gets off to a bit of a rocky start. Ella invites herself to his house to work on it, which makes his mother ridiculously happy. Ella is happy, too, eating goldfish crackers and tacos and "forgetting" to text her parents her whereabouts. After visiting a local history center, Oliver and Ella get interesting information about their subject, and do some great research in order to flesh out their documentary. Kevin is enlisted to help with the writing, and Oliver's parents even take the group to Gettysburg to investigate further. The project starts to come together nicely, and Oliver starts to realize that he might "like like" Ella, which adds an interesting wrinkle to the proceedings.
The characters are all a little quirky, but I have definitely seen children exactly like this. There are no dead parents, but the children all struggle a bit with their upbringing. Oliver feels that his parents watch him a bit too closely, and he's really annoyed with his sister's piano playing. Ella's parents are constantly on the phone with work when she is with them, and failing in school is the only way she feels she can get their attention. While we don't see as much of Kevin's parents, he does comment that his Asian parents are not thrilled with his creative writing, and would much prefer him to excel in math, science, or music. These are just the types of struggles that middle grade students face much more than death, depression or other super serious issues, but they are struggles that do impact students' daily lives. It's great to see them addressed.
The budding romance between Ella and Oliver made me so happy. It was painfully awkward but realistically portrayed. First romances are full of a lot of angst that adults don't take seriously enough. How close can I sit to the girl? Will she hold my hand? Can I call? Text? What do I say? These are very real problems, and seeing them in a book help readers understand that they are not alone. There's an inevitable misunderstanding, but an epic apology that makes the entire book worth reading, just for that scene.
How much did I love this book? I've spent the last of the the school board money for the year, but unearthed some gift cards when I was cleaning. I am going to order three copies so I don't have to wait until next year to give this book to my students.