Monday, March 14, 2011

Remember Me: Ratfink by Marcia Thornton Jones

,Grandpa was naked.

He did have a towel wrapped around his waist. A pink one. With big flowers on it.

"He was picking my petunias," Mrs. Spencer cried. "Again."

Mom said Grandpa had good days and bad days. This was obviously one of his worst days yet, because he'd also forgotten to put in his dentures.

Logan has looked forward to this day forever. It's almost time for his tenth birthday party to begin. All his friends are coming over. And his parents have promised, ever since he was little, that he could get a pet when he was ten.

And now, there's Grandpa--Grandpa has taken over his special place in the basement and does really embarrassing things. Logan knows that if his friends find Grandpa toothless and clad only in a pink flowery towel in the kitchen, he will never hear the end of the jokes at school. But it looks like Grandpa is there to stay, and Logan's dreams of a pet are suddenly on hold.

To make matters worse, Logan manages to get on the wrong side of the new girl on the first day of school. When he accidentally steps on her spotless new sneakers, Emily vows to get even with him, and she is smart enough and mean enough to make good on her threat. Emily is one of those sickingly sweet, ultra neat girls who can twist any teacher around her little finger, and in no time she has Mr. Simon on Logan's case, sending home daily frowny faces on his daily reports. And Logan knows that if Emily ever finds out about the weird things Grandpa does, she'll make sure that everyone knows about it.

Then Grandpa follows him to the pet store where Logan has gone to check out the hamsters as potential pets. Nervously watching Grandpa to try to keep him from shoplifting, Logan doesn't notice Emily there until Grandpa impulsively opens the hamster cage, and when Emily yells, "Boo!" all the hamsters make a break for freedom. The clerk blames him and now Logan is in trouble at home as well as at school.

"It's not my fault!" Logan protests. It's Emily AND Grandpa who are always getting him in trouble, but dad just tells him he has to be responsible for himself.

Then, sent downstairs to get him for dinner, Logan notices the post-it notes Grandpa has stuck up around his room:

I was born on November 30.

I married Meredith O'Conner on April 12.

My son's name is Paul. Paul was born on July 15.

My daughter-in-law's name is Joyce.

I swallowed. Hard. The sticky notes. The list. I knew what they meant. Grandpa was trying to remember things from long ago--and from now. He was trying to hang on.

Marcia Thorton Jones' Ratfink (Dutton, 2010) skillfully shows the members of this family as they try to adjust to their new circumstances, balancing Logan's need to shake his reputation as class screw-up with Grandpa's fragile hold on his memories and his independence. Although there are plenty of laughs along the way in this highly-readable novel, they are not at the expense of the characters. Logan and Grandpa, even new-kid-at-school Emily and Logan's stressed-out parents as well, are portrayed realistically and sympathetically. Realizing that everyone has their own problems is part of the experience of growing up, and this book hits home for middle readers, especially those who may have challenged relatives living at home with them.

Jones, like best-selling authors Andrew Clements and Robert Kimmel Smith (see his classic The War with Grandpa (Yearling)), has a very good ear for kid dialogue and motivation, making this a solid book for the upper elementary/middle-school set. As School Library Journal's reviewer says, "The book is well paced and filled with believable characters and situations. A thoughtful, rewarding read with a totally satisfying resolution."

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