I can understand why this book won the 2018 Newbery Medal. This story about four tweens which—according to Booklist—"celebrates bravery, being different, and finding your inner bayani (hero)" has everything modern society likes to tout: multi-cultural characters, cross-generational relationships, humor, bullying, shyness and awkwardness blooming into self-acceptance, and a plot that cleverly links all of the above...
The main characters—Virgil Salinas, Valencia Somerset, and Kaori Tanaka—don't start out being friends. Virgil is a shy, kind-hearted kid who feels out of place in his active, sports-loving family; Valencia is a smart and brave young lady whose handicap (being deaf) has alienated her and prompted her to spend her time alone outdoors; Kaori is a self-proclaimed "psychic" who has "studied Freud" and consults crystals while spending much of her time with her sister Gen. Chet Bullens is a fourth main character, who (in trying desperately to earn his father's approval) just wants to play basketball and wishes all the "retards" were somewhere else.
Virgil and Valencia are Kaori's first "clients" for her psychic business. Virgil is on his way to Kaori's house when he ends up stumbling upon Chet in the woods; during this encounter, the bully drops Virgil's backpack (which contains his pet guinea pig) down an old, dry well. As Virgil attempts to rescue his pet, he ends up stranded at the bottom—and this sets off a chain of events that draw Valencia, Kaori, and Gen into a rescue operation, creating an environment where friendship takes root.
Obviously written for today's middle school students, I don't believe this book will have much staying power. While its plot is moderately charming and many kids about 8-12 will find things in it to appreciate, overall the story is underwhelming and falls fairly flat. I believe it had the potential for greatness: chapter 10 ("The Bullens Boys") brought out some themes which, had they been developed, could have spoken deeply to today's discussion of "toxic masculinity." While I disliked the author's portrayal of Chet's dad (which I'm sure was her intent), I was very intrigued by the possibilities that relationship opened up. Unfortunately, Chet's role in the story was simply a catalyst to bring the rest of the characters together, so this was not explored.
The spirituality of the book (exemplified by the title) is the thing I would most caution Christian families about. While Kaori's "psychic abilities" can be chalked up more to her imagination than to an actual engaging with the spirit world, the frequent mention of spirits and gratitude to an unnamed "higher power" has become increasingly common in our society (and in recent Newbery books), and is a topic we'd definitely recommend you discuss with your young reader.
Review by Eli Evans
Formerly home educated and now father of five, Eli loves discovering amazing books, new and old. The owner and manager of Exodus since 1998, his focus is on offering thoughtful and well-written books that inspire the imagination and promote creativity and diligence while living for God. Read more of his reviews here
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