Crunch Review

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Leslie Connor forgive me; I sometimes forget how awesome you are. It's nice to rely on an author. To know that you can trust them to write book after book that isn't crap. That's true on the adult side of things, but I feel it's particularly important to remind folks of this on the children's literary side as well. When a parent or a teacher or a librarian discovers a writer that fills a gap in their collection and fills it well, they're allowed to go a little nuts. I went a little nuts when I realized the sheer awesomeness of Leslie Connor for the first time. I had loved her picture book "Miss Bridie Chose a Shovel". Sure. Of course I did. I'm human. I'd missed her YA novel "Dead on Town Line" (which, I'm now thinking I'd kind of like to read). But it was her middle grade book "Waiting for Normal" that convinced me of her brilliance. "Waiting for Normal". A book that by all rights, due to its premise and its title, I should have hated on sight, and yet I fell for it hook, line, and sinker. Now Connor has settled a little more thoroughly into the middle grade range and once more she tries her hand at something new. Every fiber in my being makes me want to sell this to you as a post-apocalyptic hellscape world without oil with a family tale right out of "The Penderwicks". That's not entirely accurate but if it gets you reading this book, fantastic. Whatever works, man. Whatever works.
It doesn't get much worse than this. You see every year Dewey's parents go on a kind of pseudo-honeymoon to New England (his dad's a trucker) leaving their sons Dewey and Vince and Angus and Eva (the five-year-old twins), with their eldest teen daughter Lil. Only this year, there was a snag. Due to forces beyond their control, the country is out of oil. No oil. Zip, zero, zilch. And as it happens, Dewey and his family happen to run the local bike repair shop. Now that all their neighbors are bike-bound, they're getting some serious business. Dewey is dedicated to keeping the shop going, but that's before he discovers there's a thief stealing from it. Who's the culprit? Is is someone they know? Worse still, the crises doesn't look like it's going to end anytime soon, mom and dad are halfway across the country, and the family is growing tense. Something, it's clear, has gotta give.
We don't get as many realistic worst-case scenario books for kids as you might think. Back in the 70s, when there was an actual oil shortage, you couldn't throw a dart in a children's library without hitting about ten different futuristic In-a-World-Without-Oil novels for kids and teens. These days, dystopias are far grander. They're all pseudo-perfect societies or violent reality-show offspring. Books that actually deal about the nitty gritty details of things like running out of a basic necessity (like energy) don't often happen unless the moon gets hit by a big old asteroid ("Life As We Knew It", etc.) or something. There's something strangely uplifting in Connor's world. The end of the world may seemingly be at hand, but humanity has taken it on the chin and simply adapted to a bike-based economy. There's a comfort in the law and order you find here. Yes, there's some low-level theft and some distant violence, but compared to the family dynamics and friendly neighbors (not to mention the deliciously described food) a child reading this book is going to come away from it with the understanding that as long as families stick together, even horrible situations can be overcome.
To know the work of Leslie Connor is to know how well she writes for the 9-12 crowd. She's amazing at it. She just gets people. Take for example this moment in the book when a guy the family has been helping appears on a Sunday to help them work and mentions how they never take any time off. Dewey's brother Vince enters carrying milk buckets. " `Our work is our play,' said Vince, with a raging lack of enthusiasm. He walked by me, no hands free, and stole a bit of the bagel I was holding." There are people who would give their right hands to write little family moments like that. I should know. I'm one of them. She's dead on with description too, mentioning things like, "My face ached in that about-to-start-crying sort of way." Ain't a man, woman, or child alive who doesn't know something about that.
I also love that this is an eco-friendly book in the best sense of the term. Which is to say, it doesn't take a gigantic message and bash you repeatedly over the head with it. In 2009 that book was "Operation Redwood" by S. Terrell French (a book that would pair very well with this one). This year it's "Crunch". I love that the story makes it clear that the crises here is due to politics. "Not geology". That's hugely plausible. It also means that the ending (where the oil is restored) is believable. Otherwise you'd have to end it with somebody discovering a new source of oil in the Gulf or something, and nobody really wants to go that route.
Kids these days (imagine me saying this with my old-time granny voice) with their ballet class and their soccer practice and their math club and all that stuff . . . why, they don't have time to be kids anymore, do they? I think this as I read this book and read about Dewey's dilemma. Dewey is sort of a one-of-a-kind hero in this tale because he willingly forces himself to work and work and overwork of his own volition. He's about killing himself in the bike shop, much like those kids who get overbooked with after school activities. I think there's more than one child out there who won't just see things from Dewey's point of view but will actively identify with his dilemma. They may even root for him to continue, even as his family and friends urge him to let go a little.
When I was a kid I was shown an episode of that old PBS show "Signal" where the scary British narrator imagined a world in which we lost all our power and had to return to the plow. I spent weeks imagining how I would get my family out to a friendly farm, where we could start our new lives together. "Crunch" follows similar ground, but won't inspire the nightmares I suffered as a too-imaginative kiddo. This is going to sound bad, but Connor is one of the very few hope-infused middle grade authors I can stand to read. I think that's because I believe in every word she writes. At this point, she's poised to catch on big with the kids, but you have to get them to discover her first. I found that my children's bookgroup went nuts for "Waiting for Normal" when they read it for themselves. I can't wait to lob "Crunch" at their noggins next. A book you shouldn't miss.
For ages 9-12.

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