My wife is reading to me and the kids. She finishes a passage and blurts out: “I want to go to that bookstore. I want to go with them. I want to be their friend, too.”
It’s the part where Brand, Topher and Steve are in the creepy old man’s bookstore, with Scout, the creepy stuffed owl, and the toilet painted like you’re sitting in the mouth of a shark. It’s not even one of the best parts of the book.
But she said it out loud anyway, and when the kids asked her to keep reading, going on past bedtime on a school night, I knew they all had been taken in by the book’s charm.
The book is Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson, the Indianapolis-based author perhaps better known for Sidekicked or several other kids’ books. You won’t even find Bixby on his Wikipedia page. But it’s one great book — one of the best I’ve read in a long while.
I picked it up when looking for a book for my kids to read. They weren’t interested in it and, because the book’s premise is a middle-school teacher who has cancer and not long to live, I decided not to push it. Still, my kids are in middle school and death is something worth thinking about and one of the cover blurbs said, “Kids won’t just love this book. They need it.”
So I started reading it myself and didn’t want to stop. When I got to the end, I nominated it as a family bedtime book. It’s been a hit (enough of a hit that two of my kids checked out Sidekicked from the library — before we were halfway through Bixby).
Ms. Bixby, the teacher, is awesome, the kind of teacher we all want, the kind we all want for our kids — one of “the good ones,” says the book. And through the book, mostly through flashbacks, we see and understand why. And you learn, in the storytelling, why each of the boys has a special, personal relationship with their teacher.
In one of the book’s most memorable scenes, Topher and Brand and a sketchbook collide when they realize their feelings are not unique, not theirs alone. It’s not quite jealousy, not quite possessiveness, but a rivalry flares and the tussle that erupts exposes the impulsive, complex emotions of that age. The skirmish is so real and so cleanly captured in words that the reader can feel them, too.
The boys take turns telling the story, rotating the narration by chapter, giving each chapter its own flavor, its own lens — and windows into each boy’s personal story. That unfolding of character and home life provides layers, gives the story depth, and gives each of the boys his own endearing personality.
But it’s also an adventure; the trio is on a quest to give their beloved teacher at least one more special day. That’s the storyline that drives the action, and the storytelling is fun and funny, with pitfalls, challenges and triumphs along the way — skipping school, missing buses, enlisting the help of a stranger to try scoring a bottle of wine, bartering for cheesecake with Eduardo, proprietor of Michelle’s Bakery, and getting into and out of the creepy bookstore.
Reading it myself, I enjoyed the ride but also appreciated the author’s insight into the life of boys, the ways of school and the relationships the threesome share. During our family bedtime reads, the kids laugh at some parts and my wife and I chuckle at other lines, observations and incisive witticisms. The book has heart, without being sentimental. It offers good life lessons and meanings without being didactic or overtly pushy. There’s a good deal of weight here, despite being an easy read, giving us plenty to talk about.
And that weight, those values are ultimately there for all ages. It is true that death — the specter of death — is a passenger in this 300-page novel. But the book is really about life. And how to live it. That’s what Ms. Bixby taught them so well.
Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.