Sunday, September 15, 2013

Book Review: The Pinballs by Betsy Byars (1977)

On the same day, three kids arrive at the same foster home: Thomas J. who has been raised by elderly twins after being abandoned by his birth mother, Harvey, whose own father ran over his legs with the family car, and Carlie, who has been removed from her home because of an abusive stepdad. Though they are supposedly just pinballs, existing together in one space without any particular regard for one another, these three kids form a bond that helps all three of them look hopefully toward the future.

I have known of this book for years because it was assigned reading in my own sixth grade language arts class, back in 1993, but the only thing that sounded at all familiar about it when I picked it up again was the name Thomas J. Otherwise, this may have been my first reading of the book. It was a much quicker and more engaging read than I remember. As I’ve mentioned before, I didn’t tolerate sadness very well as a kid, and knowing that kids were treated badly by their parents would have automatically kept me from investing myself too much in the story. As an adult, though, with lots more books under my belt, I can really appreciate the value of this book, and its continued relevance more than 35 years after its publication.

I think what makes this book stand the test of time more than anything else is its honesty about how the characters feel. As they settle into their new foster home, two of the characters cope by making lists about their lives. Harvey writes “Bad Things That Have Happened To Me” while Carlie starts one entitled “Big Events and How I Got Cheated Out of Them.” Carlie asks pointed questions of her foster mother, revealing her fears and confusion about why this woman wants her to live in her home. Harvey expresses real disappointment when he is promised Kentucky Fried Chicken and his foster father forgets to bring it home. Thomas J. worries about his inability to express love because the elderly twins who cared for him never really demonstrated their feelings. These anecdotes from the lives of the three foster kids are very real, and they help kids relate to the difficulties the characters face, even if they have never had the same experiences. There are some really dated pop culture expressions and references that might put off some contemporary readers, but beyond those are three well-developed characters with three-dimensional personalities and distinct identities.

This is the third book I have reviewed on this blog that depicts children in the foster care system. One for the Murphys describes an almost sugary-sweet situation in which a young girl slowly acclimates to her completely loving and perfect foster family. The Story of Tracy Beaker focuses on a more difficult little girl, who has been left at the children’s home for a long time, with little hope for a foster family to take her in. The Pinballs strikes a balance between these two more extreme scenarios and focuses on the friendships formed among the kids rather than their relationships to the adults who try to improve their lives. Though there are positive things to be said for all three books, I think The Pinballs is the one that is most likely to stick with me. For me, it’s the most real, and in some ways, the most hopeful, because it empowers the kids to take control of their own destiny and to focus on themselves instead of the adults who let them down.

I would recommend the The Pinballs to readers in grades 4 to 8 who prefer realistic fiction and character-driven stories, and who are ready to grapple with heavier issues.

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