Monday, March 13, 2017

2016 Cybils MG Finalist: Full of Beans by Jennifer L. Holm

It's July 1934, and times are hard for the Curry family. Poppy's out of work and in New Jersey looking for a job, and mom is taking in laundry, so son Beans Curry does what he can to help out. But after sifting through garbage, collecting empty cans and expecting to get 10¢ for every twenty cans, he is cheated out of 5¢ by the wily Winky, who now claims he said 50 cans per 10¢. One thing that Beans knows for sure is that grown-ups lie and Winky is a good example of that. Angered, Beans is determined to find another way to help his family out. Luckily, "businessman" Johnny Cakes happens to be looking for Beans with a job proposition.

Turns out, Johnny Cakes is a rum runner, and Beans's job is to help him get the illegally gotten Cuban rum off ships in the middle of the night. All Beans has to do is set off the fire alarm to divert any possible attention from the docks. It job pays good money and Beans doesn't mind doing it, but after so many false alarms, the fire department stops responding to them.Which is too bad, since one night there is a real fire, destroying the house of one of Beans's best friends. Racked with guilt, Beans never confesses his part in the fire, but he does stop working for Johnny Cakes and turns his sights toward more positive work trying to assuage his guilt.

At the same time, the federal government has sent down some New Dealers to decide whether to simply evacuate Key West, or clean it up and turn it into a warm, sunny tourist attraction. As the transformation of Key West begins, and houses get painted, a playground gets built, and stray dogs are rounded up, Beans manages to find a way to help in the beautification of Key West rounding up his gang of friends to collect garbage and rake seaweed.

But perhaps Beans's real saving grace will be his uncanny ability to take care of babies, after all, he certainly has a way with them.

Jennifer Holm returns to depression-era Key West, Florida in this fun prequel to Turtle in Paradise. It's a place she is familiar with, since her family had lived there since the late 1800s. The story is told in the first person by Beans, who draws the reader right in the midst of the sights, sounds and smells of 1934 Key West.

I thought Beans was a wonderful character. He's got a great sense of humor, a deep sense of loyalty towards friends and family, and despite his brief foray into crime, he actually as a moral compass and conscience to go with it, and, amazingly, he never complains when he is asked to help out at home, no matter what is is asked to do.

I loved the historical references, the mention of movie stars and writers of the time - Ernest Hemingway is already a Key West resident, Robert Frost a visitor, and with money in his pocket, Beans escapes life for a little while at the local movie theater. As he tells readers, Shirley Temple is just beginning to make it big and he is sure she will be a star.

I thought it interesting that Holm mentions leprosy. Sitting in the dark theater at night, Beans notices a man who seems to vanish in thin air after each movie ends. It turns out that the man, named Murray, has leprosy, and can't go out during the day: "It's not safe...They'd send me to the leper hospital in Louisiana. Nobody ever comes back from that place." (pg 125) (as a middle grader, I had read a book called Miracle at Carville by Betty Martin. This is the hospital that Murray is referring to).

Since this novel is grounded in the real history of Key West during the Great Depression, Holm has included an extensive Author's Note, with a number of photographs, and there is even a list of Beans's Favorite Kid Actors and his friend's Pork Chop's Best Sayings.

All in all, Full of Beans is definitely full of fun.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was sent to my by the publisher, Random House BFYR


  1. Reading this reminded me of a story my husband is fond of telling - as a lad he used to collect ‘money back’ bottles to return to the local corner shop. After a while, Terry and a couple of other boys got wise to the fact that the shopkeeper stored all these ‘empties’ at the back of the shop before returning them to the manufacturer. From then on it was a simply a matter of nipping over the fence grabbing a handful of bottles and returning them to the shop over and over again! This little ruse worked well until Terry and another boy were caught red handed. Terry is fond of saying he couldn’t sit down for a week after his dad took a slipper to him.

    I enjoyed your review of Full of beans, and I’m sure I would enjoy the book. I always appreciate an author who takes the time to include a lot of notes and photographs.

    1. That's a great story about your husband. Thanks for sharing it. This is a fun book, and I found the photos at the end fascinating. I think of Key West, Florida as a place for the rich, but it very clearly wasn't always like that. I always appreciate these kinds of historical notes as well.


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