Armstrong & Charlie
March 07, 2017
Charlie isn’t looking forward to sixth grade. If he starts sixth grade, chances are he’ll finish it. And when he does, he’ll grow older than the brother he recently lost. Armstrong isn’t looking forward to sixth grade, either. When his parents sign him up for Opportunity Busing to a white school in the Hollywood Hills, all he wants to know is "What time in the morning will my alarm clock have the opportunity to ring?" When these two land at the same desk, it's the Rules Boy next to the Rebel, a boy who lost a brother elbow-to-elbow with a boy who longs for one.
From September to June, arms will wrestle, fists will fly, and bottles will spin. There'll be Ho Hos spiked with hot sauce, sleepovers, boy talk about girls, and a little guidance from the stars.
Set in Los Angeles in the 1970s, Armstrong and Charlie is the hilarious, heartwarming tale of two boys from opposite worlds, Different, yet the same.
Illustrations/Photos (if applicable)
First of all, I have to buy this because of the description of cleaning white wall tires! That was always my job, and I hated it as much as Charlie does. Small historical touches, like using land lines, biking around without supervision, and reading from SRA cards, make this a great choice. It is how the racial issues are addressed, however, that makes this brilliant. Things aren't easy, but they aren't horrible, either. The issue of busing was covered well from both sides, and the attitudes were very much in line with what I remember growing up. (I'm probably about 2 years younger than the author.) It's hard to get a good balance-- this book will make some readers uncomfortable, especially the scene where there is an interracial kiss and tensions fly. But it's brilliantly done. Is the boy really made that the boy who kissed the girl he likes is black, or that the girl he likes seems to have enjoyed the kissed? These issues are never simple, and middle grade readers are sophisticated enough to understand this.
The role of the fathers is interesting as well. Charlie's served at the end of WWII, and Armstrong's father lost a leg in Korea, and this shapes the way they treat their children. There were other interesting adult characters as well-- the lonely but helpful Mr. Khalil, and the poor beleaguered aide, Edwina Gaines, who writes hysterical incident reports when things go wrong at school.
The only thing that I disliked about this was the inclusion of the brother's death, and the mother's dysfunctional way of dealing with that, but that is a personal issue. It was addressed fairly lightly in the book, and the mother does finally get her act together.
Armstrong and Charlie is a must read for middle grade students who are trying to figure out their own place in the world, since that's exactly what these characters are trying to do. They're just trying to do it in a world where there are banana seats on bicycles and peanut butter in every sandwich in the lunch room. 6th grade is still about learning to spread the Ho Hos around, and good historical fiction manages to show students that while things may change, they really stay very much the same.
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