Review of the Day: All of the Above
You know what author Shelley Pearsall’s got? Flexibility, baby. Loads of it. Let’s say, for example, that you write a rip-roaringly good bit of harrowing historical fiction (as she did with Crooked River). Now you’d like to follow that up with another book for kids. Do you follow the straight and narrow path of always writing with an eye on the past? Or do you get inspired by a group of students at the Alexander Hamilton School in Cleveland, Ohio? Pearsall opted for the latter, and the result is the surprisingly good, All of the Above. Now I avoided this book like crazy for a while. Why? The crummy cover. But open that same cover up and you find a story that never loses hope but that also never treads into the world of mindless optimism. There’s a gritty reality hiding at the core of this book. The surprise is that it’s a pleasure to discover it for yourself.
Seventh grade math teacher Mr. Collins is the first person to explain to you how, “the tetrahedron project began with one of my worst classes in twenty years of teaching”. In that class you have some pretty odd kids. There's James Harris III who basically comes across as future jail fodder more than anything else. There's also Sharice who does well in school but has trouble at home. Rhondell works hard but she’s so timid and stuck in her own little shell that it’s hard to get her to do anything besides cower. And then of course there’s local celebrity Marcel, who’s father owns the best known barbecue joint around. What do these kids all have in common? Well, they’re in the math club. Not just any math club, though. Mr. Collins has this crazy plan. You see, a California school once built a “Stage 6” tetrahedron and got into the Guinness Book of World Records. Collins thinks this group can do better. But when personal problems and a devastating bit of vandalism bring the project screeching to a halt, it’s up to the kids, not Collins, to come up with a new plan. Told in ever changing first person narrratives, Pearsall weaves together the story's fight and ultimate success.
What did I appreciate about this book? Well, the description makes it kind of sound like a “Stand and Deliver” type story with a healthy helping of “Dangerous Minds” to boot. In essence, the old plotline where a white teacher comes to town and gets the inner city kids to believe in themselves. Oop. Aack. We’re all pretty tired of that story, to say nothing of how insulting it can be. Appreciate “All of the Above”, then for turning that tired old chestnut of a parable into something fresh and new. Yes, the idea to create the world’s biggest tetrahedron is thought up by Mr. Collins, the resident white math teacher. But the guy hasn’t a clue what he’s doing. He’s pretty much willing to give up on the idea, the Math Club, and the project itself when the going gets a little rough. He’s not goading these kids into doing more with their lives. Not much, anyway. Their families are doing that. And when push comes to shove he and the kids are helped by the janitor, hairstylists, and the owner of a barbecue joint far more than just dinky little Collins on his own. I half wondered if Pearsall plucked his name from “Pride and Prejudice”, knowingly or on a subconscious level. Heaven knows it kind of fits him.
It’s obvious that Pearsall has spent a fair amount of time in high schools across the country too. When James Harris III says, “You ever notice how school clocks do that? How they don’t move like other clocks do; they jump ahead like bugs?”. Yup. I’ve noticed that. So has every school librarian, teacher, and child attending public school in the United States of America. It just takes a well-attuned author to pick up on it. Pearsall zeroes in on other little things as well. I liked that for every foodstuff Marcel mentions there’s an accompanying recipe that follows. This is true of even the less tasty treats, like “Willy Q’s Cannonball Cornbread”. The reader is informed at the end of the recipe to, “Cover and refrigerate leftovers. Trust me, there will be a lot”. I also enjoyed that the first person narratives were sometimes voiced by adults as well as children. Sometimes books of this nature limit their narrative voices, thereby narrowing the possibilities for the story itself. Pearsall doesn’t fall into that trap. If Rhondell’s Aunt Asia is the best person to talk at a given point then that’s who’s talking. Nuff said.
What the book did that others of its ilk sometimes fail to is come across as timeless. The Nikki Grimes novel, Bronx Masquerade, may have sported some top notch writing, but the slang alone dated it within a year of its publication. This is not the case with, “All of the Above”. For one thing, the slang is popular without being trendy. Pearsall doesn’t spot the text with the newest technology, partly because her characters couldn’t afford it, and partly because it would date the book considerably in a few years. I was also rather touched by how well Pearsall was able to distinguish between the voices of her characters. You wouldn't think Rhondell was talking when it was actually Sharice and vice versa. And I appreciate that there were happy endings in this book. Better still, they appear in a true and honest manner without so much as a whiff of Deus Ex Machina.
What didn’t I like about the book? Well, it’s hard to get around the fact that what the kids are trying to do is rather small. Then again, that’s kind of the point. This isn’t about getting everyone a free ride to Yale or anything. It’s about breaking a world record, which is a seriously kid-friendly concept. Still, it’s going to be difficult to sell this story to kids on that idea alone. “Hey, kids! Want to read about a class that glues tetrahedrons together?”. Booksellers and librarians are going to have to hand sell and booktalk this one on an individual level. And even then it’s not going to be a story for everyone. Add in the unattractive cover (note the school bus yellow shade) and you’ve a book that’s going to have to work to get people to pick it up. Once they do they’ll be fine. Just getting there is the difficulty.
To be honest, I don’t think this book is going to get the attention it deserves. But for those few lucky souls who get a chance to read it, “All of the Above” is a lively wonderful recount of a project that actually occurred at the Alexander Hamilton School in 2002. Pearsall lists every true fact that she has put in the book in her Author’s Note at the back and it offers the reader a sense of closure. This comes across as a fine title and one worth perusing. If you can, sneak it into the reading pile of a kid you know. You’ll find them pleasantly surprised.
On shelves September 6th.