Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Book Review: Pay Attention, Carter Jones by Gary D. Schmidt (2019)

Carter Jones feels very deeply the loss of his younger brother, Currier, who died after an illness two years ago, as well as the absence of his father, an army captain who has seemed distant from the family for some time. When Carter's grandfather (whom he and his sisters never knew) passes away and essentially leaves his butler, August Paul Bowles-Fitzgerald, to the family, Carter is at first totally perplexed. As Mr. Bowles-Fitzgerald steps into his new role in the household, however, he begins teaching Carter new things: how to play cricket, how to think critically, how to be a gentleman, how to pay attention, and above all, how to move forward in the absence of those he has loved and lost.

In the early parts of this novel, I wasn't quite sure what to make of the whole thing. It felt a bit like someone had stuck Jeeves into a children's book, and I didn't understand what the point  of such a story might be. At first, it just didn't seem like this book would have the same depth of emotion and strong character development that I've so enjoyed in Schmidt's other novels set in this universe, The Wednesday Wars and Okay For Now. But I should have known better than to underestimate this author.

This book is not just funny (though there is a fair amount of humor), nor is it simply a sport novels (though cricket and American football both figure into the plot). Rather, this book uses the humorous dialogue between Carter and the butler and the development of a cricket program at Carter's middle school as vehicles for helping Carter come to terms with what is happening in his life. Schmidt reveals the complicated emotions Carter has about his brother and father in waves, over many chapters, so for a while, it is difficult to see where things are heading. When it comes, though, the payoff is huge. Many books will manipulate a reader into crying; this is the rare novel that genuinely moves the reader to tears.

Pay Attention Carter Jones is most appropriate for middle school readers, especially those who have a strong interest in sports and can easily pick up the jargon and rules of a game they may not have watched or played before. Kids who are avid readers might also notice that some of the minor characters share last names in common with some of their favorite authors - a nice touch. As in Schmidt's earlier books, this one also encourages appreciation for the arts: ballet, painting, and the books of E. Nesbit all play a minor role. As a fan of the author, I was definitely not disappointed, and I think readers who share my love for heartfelt and well-written middle grade realistic fiction will be equally pleased with this novel. (Thank you, Clarion Books and Edelweiss+ for the digital ARC!)

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