Sunday, April 27, 2014

Book Review: Cracker Jackson by Betsy Byars (1985)

Jackson cares a lot about his former babysitter, Alma. This is why he worries so much about her abusive husband, who uses Alma and their baby daughter, Nicole, as physical and emotional punching bags. Though the adults in his life tell him to stay out of it, Jackson can’t help but feel that it is somehow his responsibility to step in and save Alma before her husband does irreparable damage.

This book contains sophisticated subject matter, but it is handled remarkably well, and always in age appropriate terms. Byars strikes the right balance between the seriousness of Alma’s dangerous situation and the humor that boys in the target age range most appreciate. Byars portrays Alma as young, immature, and lost, so that the reader easily sympathizes with her, and she keeps the abusive husband mostly on the sidelines, keeping the threat of violence pretty far removed from her main character. She introduces humor by involving Jackson’s best friend, Goat, and sending the boys and Alma on an ill-fated road trip where the two boys take turns driving.

Byars also strikes just the right balance between the story’s overall message and Jackson’s personal beliefs. Though Jackson always believes he should play the role of hero, the worldview of the story does not reflect this mistaken impression. Rather, Byars makes it possible for the reader to empathize completely with Jackson’s desire to help Alma, but she also makes sure they realize that saving Alma ultimately requires adult intervention.

Jackson is a sincere and believable character to whom most pre-adolescent boys are likely to relate. Cracker Jackson is every bit as well-written as any of the books in the Blossoms series, and readers who enjoyed the high-stakes scenarios in those books will be pleased to find another complicated and realistic story in this book. If this book were published today, it is likely that it would be a dark YA novel with nothing held back. I’m pleased that this book manages to tackle a serious subject without succumbing to darkness, and I wish there were more middle grade novels like it!

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