Thursday, March 1, 2018

Book Review: The Cartoonist by Betsy Byars (1978)

Alfie's family home is very small and tilting to one side. His father has died, and his older brother has moved away. His mother and grandfather do the best they can, but there is very little Alfie can call his own, except for the attic. In the attic, Alfie can escape from the unhappy moments of his life by doing what he loves most: drawing cartoons. When Alfie's brother and his newly pregnant wife announce that they are coming back home to live with the family, his mother announces that she will be giving them the attic. Alfie, unable to face the loss of his private art studio, locks himself in the attic, refusing to leave until it is restored to him.

Betsy Byars writes some of the most believable - and honest - realistic fiction available for kids. This book is not about a happy child, but it is about a child many readers can relate to, even if their own situations vary a bit from his. Byars makes her readers really feel Alfie's indignation over his mother's clear favoring of his older brother, and hints about Alfie's dad's death and his grandfather's longing for the past help paint a perfect portrait of this family's particular dysfunctions and difficulties.

As is the case with many Byars books, this one ends on a note that feels a little bit unresolved. There is a resolution to Alfie's problem of losing the attic, but there is also a sense of defeat and an understanding that Alfie's life, even if he continues escaping into his cartoons, is not going to get any easier any time soon. At least one Goodreads reviewer seems to think this somewhat messy ending means the book is "horribly depressing" and has "no redeeming value," but I disagree. This story simply reflects the way things are sometimes, and, because its author is ever-respectful of the intelligence of young readers, she doesn't interpret the ending or use it as an opportunity to preach a moral. Rather, the interpretation of her message is left for readers to ponder themselves, and I'm sure there are as many impressions of the ending of this book as there are kids who have read it.

The Cartoonist was a quick, but deep read. Though it is short, I'd recommend it to kids in the upper elementary and middle school grades, as they are most likely to understand Alfie's longing for a place of his own and his nostalgia for a past life lost.

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