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See permission.
The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

by Audrey Couloumbis

Tragic accidents, missing siblings, negligent parents, school bullies, and villainy of both the earthly and supernatural ilk. With so toothsome a variety of plots regularly arrayed on the children’s literature smorgasbord, can such homely fare as Mom’s broken leg tempt a thrill-hungry audience? When the story is so keenly attuned to plausible kid anxiety as to elicit a shivery, “Yeah, that could so totally happen,” then yes, indeed.

Ten-year-old Jake Wexler and his mom have been doing perfectly all right since the death of Jake’s father seven years ago. On this particular wintry Baltimore Saturday, they’ve attended their karate class and are on to grocery shopping. Jake is loading bags into the car, chatting with Mom but only half-listening to her end of the conversation. Suddenly Mom’s not responding; she’s slipped on a patch of ice and gotten wedged part-way under the car. Jake yells for help and shoppers promptly respond with a call for the paramedics, launching what will be several of the most nerve-wracking days of his life and a test of his aunt Ginny’s axiom that “ten is a turning point, maturity-wise.”

Readers know almost immediately that Mom has (merely!) broken her leg and will make a good recovery, but that is, of course, no use to our protagonist. This average kid who is accustomed to being the object of others’ care suddenly finds himself peppered with questions from hospital personnel, well meaning but ill equipped to deal with a distraught ten-year-old. How is he supposed to recall her doctor’s name, her allergies, her insurance company, the phone numbers of distant relatives? And how is he supposed to make his own overnight arrangements? His best friend is in Florida for Christmas, his aunt Ginny and Mom’s friend Suzie are briefly out of town, and he scarcely knows his one possibly available relative, his paternal grandfather in North Carolina. Mrs. Buttermark, a neighbor in their apartment building, seems the best bet, and the hospital staff, relieved to have some place to stow this little guy until his mother comes out of anesthesia, leaps on the lead. Even as Jake settles into the notion that Mom will probably be okay, his list of worries grows. When will she get home? Who will help around the house? What will become of Christmas?

Mrs. Buttermark is just what Jake needs — sensible, comforting, and competent — and the two of them should be able to jog along well together until Mom’s release. But when they return the hospital on Sunday morning, Jake’s grandfather is there. Now, besides worrying about Mom, Jake must also share their apartment with a man he hardly knows and negotiate the fine line between host and grandson, both of which roles are entirely new to him. Lo and behold, Jake is up to the task, and in the days that follow he makes friends with Granddad and his scary dog, handles a thank-you gift to the woman who assisted his injured mother, tackles the deep end of the YMCA pool, oversees treatment for Granddad’s cold, helps plan bedside Christmas festivities, shares family stories, and most importantly, begins to understand why Granddad and Mom had lost touch following his father’s death.

New and prospective members of the Double Digit Club will readily empathize with Jake and his crash course in Life Skills 101 and assess their own probable response to a household emergency. A competent ’tween distinguishes between a painful and a life-threatening injury, controls his tears, knows where Mom keeps her keys, orders the perfect take-out, walks the dog, and realizes that adults under stress need cooperation and comfort. Jake emerges from his week-long ordeal with predictable relief and a satisfying burst of self-confidence, and readers envisioning similar quotidian crises will optimistically assert, “Yeah, I could totally handle that too.”

Elizabeth Bush, Reviewer



Cover image from Jake ©2010 by Antonio Javier Caparo.  Used by permission of Random House Children's Books.

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This page was last updated on December 1, 2010.