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Thursday, May 6, 2010

Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie, written by Jordan Sonnenblick. Scholastic, 2004. $7.99 ages 10 and up

"And I wanted to scream at every teacher, 'Why are you making me do this stupid busywork while my brother's white cell count is so low? Who cares about listing the first ten presidents when my brother has another spinal tap on Friday? What possible use is the FOIL method of muliplying binomials when my brother's gums are bleeding every time he tries to brush his teeth?'
And I wanted to punch every kid who told me they 'understood' my pain. Nobody understood my pain."

It's hard to imagine that I have included a humor label for this book when it is Steven's personal account of a school year that mostly deals with his little brother's battle with cancer. But, add it I did because this compelling novel includes much humor, along with the heartbreak.

Our first meeting with Steven is at school, where he is devising a list of annoying things as a pre-writing strategy:

- journal assignments
- dull pencils
- the pencil sharpener smell

When he realizes that his teacher is standing right behind him, he makes a lightning quick decision to write about his little annoying. Sarcasm is at play here and Steven drafts a humorous depiction of some of Jeffrey's behaviors. On first meeting, Steven seems a normal middle schooler...'rents that cause untold difficulties when trying to lead an adolescent lifestyle, a crush on the 'hot' girl in his class who doesn't know he's alive, a little brother that everyone else loves (but they don't have to live with him) and the daily school grind meant to irritate young teens.

Steven has an authentic, emotional voice and we are happy to be is his company as he shares his story with us. On a seemingly normal day, Steven offers to make breakfast for his little brother. A fall results in a nosebleed that won't quit and a heart-stopping diagnosis of leukemia for the five year old. The author creates a family whose love and concern are evident in every trip to the hospital, every treatment needed and every emotional turn this dramatic novel takes. He writes deftly about the emotional toll it takes when a loved one must face unbearable pain and the family must deal with the upheavals that result from expensive and critical care.

Steven shares his honest and heartbreaking responses to all that is happening around him; his parents are inconsolable at times, while trying to keep their spirits up, as Jeffrey endures painful treatment, endless setbacks and minor improvement. Steven is angry, frustrated and unwilling to share what he is going through with his friends. Drumming seems to be his one release and drum he does, in preparation for a very important concert. When his friends find out about Jeffrey, they offer their support and show their concern while trying to help him deal with the uncertainties and the sadness that consume him.

He has a real and remarkable voice, and is a totally believable character. The others who 'people' this story have their own strengths and they add depth to every scene. There is no formula here for how the story will play out; only open, honest conversations and responses to a terrible time in this family's life. It is uncomfortable and it is real...we go through the whole thing, caring about Steven, Jeffrey and the others who matter in their lives.

"I know that, in the middle of everything else that's gone swirling around us this year, I've been his play buddy, dropped everything for him, held his hand whenever he's asked." What more can a brother do?

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