To “pay attention” to the world around you is rule #1 of a life well lived, as this winning middle-grade novel shows.
*Pay Attention, Carter Jones by Gary Schmidt. Clarion, 2019, 217 pages.
Reading Level: Middle Grades, ages 10-12
Recommended for: ages 10-15
It’s no picnic having the man of the house away on deployment, even though it’s in Germany and supposedly out of danger. Carter’s mom isn’t handling it well. On an especially hectic day, the first day of 6th grade for Carter (and other grades for his three sisters), the jeep isn’t running and the household is in an uproar. In the midst of the chaos, Carter answers the front door to a portly, formally dressed individual with a bowler hat and umbrella the size of a satellite dish. This is Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick, otherwise known as the Butler—though he himself prefers the term “gentleman’s gentleman.” He’s been dispatched by Carter’s paternal grandfather, who recently passed away, to render service to this struggling family, and immediately proves himself a godsend.
Chaos is the result of an underlying sorrow. Carter had a little brother, and now that brother is gone, due to a sudden, devastating illness. His dad didn’t get home in time to say goodbye—now Dad is back in Germany and everybody is handling the unraveling of the household in his or her own way. The Butler has another way, and it’s a little different for every family member. For Carter, it’s the gentlemanly game of cricket.
Carter begins as a typically flippant (on the surface) 6th-grader who doesn’t know how to deal with the weightier matters of his life until Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick provides some grounding. “In the midst of great anxiety and great sadness, it takes an honorable man to nourish the goodness around him, small and fragile as it may seem.” Family is good, and art, and dance, and sport–but it takes effort to nourish those things. Some of the boy’s peers, including 8th-grader Carson Kregs, also happen to be cricket fans, and Carson backs up the Butler: “Cricket is serious. Pay attention.” Cricket is also incomprehensible to most people, and remained so to me because I wasn’t paying close attention to the sports sequences. But that doesn’t matter so much because (of course) it’s a metaphor. Life is serious and requires attention to live well, but it’s also thrilling, fun, and totally worth the effort.
Overall rating: 5 (out of 5)
- Worldview/moral value: 5
- Artistic value: 5