Eleven years old and his parents have signed him up for the 8th grade. He's sure James Jenkins, 8th grader, is a murderer. Sam Abernathy has problems. One of the biggest one is his father who doesn't listen to his own son and doesn't even see who he is. Ever since Sam fell into a well.. a very deep well...at the age of 4, his parents have been helicoptering around him, making plans for Sam's future and ignoring who Sam is and whata he wants to be and do. How did they get here?
Imagine for a moment you have taken a step in the middle of a game of SPUD and when you have that sense that your foot should be landing on solid ground with a thud, you instead find yourself falling, falling, landing, and falling, falling again only to finally land in an upside-down position with your arms curled above your head and dirt falling into your face in the middle of wet, murky darkness. PTSD anyone? Claustrophobia anyone?
Eleven-year-old Sam Abernathy did just that back when he was four years old. It was Thanksgiving Day and Sam was playing with his good friend, Karim. That's when James Jenkins took the ball, threw it into the air so high and Sam took the fateful step and the life-altering fall. Since that day Sam has been certain that James Jenkins was out to kill him then and is most definitely out to kill him now.
Sam's parents are pretty much out to kill him, too. Well, maybe they don't intend to kill him but they are doing a great imitation of it anyway. His Dad loves to take Sam out on survival trips that involve taking off your shirt and shoes, eating worms if it comes down to it and drinking water out of a smashed up beer can. Communing with nature this is not.
They've also decided that due to Sam's high scores on school administered tests, they think it best that Sam skip the 6th and 7th grades and go on to the 8th grade. Yes, he's 11 years old and struggling to figure out why his friend Karim keeps going with and breaking up with girls and his parents have decided to press the fast forward button on Sam's life and send him on another survival mission just as horrifying as his nature trips with his dad only this time involving P.E. class showers, a school dance, and the potential for being murdered by James Jenkins whose locker is only two doors away from Sam's.
This is Sam's journey through the dark and wily tunnel of the 8th grade without a guide. His parents are completely unaware of who he is and that includes his dream of becoming a chef and not making a name for himself at M.I.T. We follow this journey as though having bought a ticket to a carnival ride called House of Horrors. The alternating chapters of the book take us back to the days when Sam was trapped in the tunnel at age four.
In the tunnel Sam meets an armadillo named Bartleby who at the very least does offer some moments of company and perhaps even entertainment and possibilities as Sam awaits his rescue.
Sam is a very smart guy. He is pretty sure he wants to be a chef but he doesn't know how to tell his father. If he can enter the Blue Creek Days Colonel Jenkins Macaroni and Cheese Cook-Off, which is being hosted by James Jenkins' father, just maybe he can prove to his parents that he is good enough to follow his dream.
There is the small sticking point that Sam is also pretty sure James Jenkins is a murderer-in-waiting and that he, Sam, is his intended victim. It's only a matter of time.
Sam is an underdog you root for. You really wish you could be there with him to tell him he's doing it right and he should believe in himself. After having read a string of middle grade books in the past few weeks, I am beginning to think we need to assign them to parents of 4th graders so they can see themselves and stop this nightmare of putting labels and expectations on their kids and stop putting their own goals and wishes on their kids, too.
Every single human being and especially middle schoolers want and need someone to tell them they are seen, really seen...and that who they are is enough. This story offers that brilliant truth to every single boy or girl who is lucky enough to pick this book out of the stacks. Funny, perceptive, courageous and like a strong hand reaching into the dark well that so many, many of our children have stumbled into. You rock, Andrew. Your lucky students..to have someone who knows how to build the rescue tunnel at just the right angle.
272 pages 978-1534419551 Ages 9-13
Recommended by: Barb Langridge, abookandahug.com
A boy who spent three days trapped in a well tries to overcome his PTSD and claustrophobia so he can fulfill his dream of becoming a famous chef in this charming novel that is Andrew Smith’s first foray into middle grade storytelling.
When he was four years old, Sam Abernathy was trapped at the bottom of a well for three days, where he was teased by a smart-aleck armadillo named Bartleby. Since then, his parents plan every move he makes.
But Sam doesn’t like their plans. He doesn’t want to go to MIT. And he doesn’t want to skip two grades, being stuck in the eighth grade as an eleven-year-old with James Jenkins, the boy he’s sure pushed him into the well in the first place. He wants to be a chef. And he’s going to start by entering the first annual Blue Creek Days Colonel Jenkins Macaroni and Cheese Cook-Off.
That is, if he can survive eighth grade, and figure out the size of the truth that has slipped Sam’s memory for seven years.