Holling is the only Presbyterian student in his school, so while the Catholic students go to their religious studies in one part of town and the Jewish students go to theirs on the other, Holling spends his Wednesday afternoons in school alone with his teacher, and he is pretty sure that Mrs. Baker hates him.
While Holling is trying to navigate school successfully (Doug Swieteck's older brother is a known bully, and Holling has about $3.00 to take Meryl Lee somewhere special for Valentine's Day), the world around him is turned upside down. The Vietnam War continues, political figures are killed, and the school has regular drills in case the Russians attack with an atomic bomb.
This is a book about right and wrong, surviving humiliation, triumph, fallen heroes, Shakespeare, apologies, and growing up. It's full of good stuff.
In spite of the intriguing title, there may be some initial resistance to this book as students come to terms with the fact that the story is set in the late sixties, so global concerns and peer activities look a bit unfamiliar to modern readers. Persistence is rewarded with humor and heart, as this author has brilliantly captured the seventh grade protagonist, from his occasionally self-centered moments, to every-day worries, to emerging questions about how the world is and how it ought to be.
The book offers rich discussion topics, which are accessible for fifth graders to discern, and raised with subtlety (as opposed to landing with the force of a sledgehammer). It may be helpful for students to read this book in literature circles so they can appreciate its nuances and layers. One of the most impressive things about this book is the portrayal of adults from an adolescent's perspective, whether they are unreliable, heartbreaking, heroic, or surprisingly human.
"When gods die, they die hard. It's not like they fade away or grow old or fall asleep. They die in fire and pain, and when they come out of you, they leave your guts burned . . . And maybe worst of all is, you're not sure if there will ever be another god to fill their place . . . You don't want fire to go out inside you twice."
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