Thursday, April 6, 2017

2016 Cybils MG Finalist: Ms. Bixby's Last Day by John David Anderson

There are six kinds of teachers in the world, according to sixth-graders Topher and his friends Steve and Brand. The sixth kind is the ones they call the Good Ones. And this year they finally have a Good One - Ms. Bixby. So when she sits her class down to tell them that she has been diagnosed with cancer, ductal adenocarcinoma to be exact, and will be leaving soon, the three boys decide to give her the exact last day she had described in class during an assignment: Imagine you had only one day left on the earth. What would you do with it?

As the three boys prepare for Ms. Bixby's last day of school, they discover that her cancer treatments aren't working and that she is now in the hospital. Not quite ready to give up the idea of giving her a good last day, the boys decide that if Ms. Bixby can't be in school for it, they will take it to her in the hospital, even if it means skipping school for part of the day to do it.

But gathering the three things that Ms. Bixby said she would want on her last day isn't easy. The price of the white chocolate raspberry supreme cheesecake from Michelle's Bakery is way beyond any amount the boys had imagined; the bottle of wine has to be bought for them and they couldn't pick a worse person to do that; but the McDonald's french fries works out without a problem.

Over the course of their preparations, each boy narrates his individual story and we discover why Ms. Bixby is so important to each one, since their feelings go much deeper than just a schoolboy crush. Each boy feels isolated, alone, and unimportant for their own reasons, and those feelings are just what Ms. Bixby taps into. For all her coolness and pink striped hair, I couldn't help but wonder if she shared those same feelings in her personal life.

Steve Sakata's helicopter parents are accomplishment and recognition oriented and to make matters more complicated for him, he has a sister who fulfills his parents dreams with trophies and ribbons. B's are not acceptable and honorable mentions, Steve believes, only serve to remind him of who actually won. Always feeling like he is falling short in his parents eyes, it is Ms. Bixby who tells Steve that to be ones self in a world that wants make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.

Topher (short for Christopher) Renn's parents couldn't be more different from Steve's. They are too busy with their jobs to care much about what he is up to, flitting from one thing to another, assuming everything in Topher's life is okay. Topher is an accomplished artist, and while his drawing were once a big deal with his parents, now they barely look at them. But Ms. Bixby does, much to his surprise.

Brand Walker's mother is dead and his father is on disability after falling three stories from a scaffold. Confined to a wheelchair, he chooses to spend all his time in the house watching television, which means that Brand has had to learn how to run the house and manage what little money comes in. And if they want to eat, Brand has to walk to and from the grocery store two miles away. As he finally tells his friends, it is an eternity when you are carrying a gallon of milk, a bag of potatoes, and six family-sized boxes of mac and cheese, and torture in freezing cold rain. But, it is Ms. Bixby who saves him, in more ways than just a four mile walk for groceries.

While their adventures between leaving school and arriving back there at the end of the day are sometimes humorous, something poignant, and sometimes dangerous, their adventure are merely the vehicle that carries their stories and Ms. Bixby's part in them. In a world where they feel like they are not good enough, Ms. Bixby's message to each of them is that there is someone who really thinks they are just great just the way they are.

Steve, Topher, and Brand are typical middle school boys. Their thinking is so spot on, and their friendship reflects the kinds of up and downs you would expect from that age. As an adult with a Kiddo, I did have trouble with the wine buying episode and its aftermath, yet it was also so typical of that age to do what they did.

There is no doubt, given the name of the novel, that this is going to be a real tearjerker of a story. Being a teacher, I love a good teacher story and Ms. Bixby definitely belongs to that small but esteemed club of favorite teachers in literature.

Ms. Bixby's Last Day made me laugh and cry. I know my middle school self would have loved every word of this book.  It has just the right amount of poignance without slipping into maudlin and I think what makes it bearable and not just a dead teacher story is that, for the most part, it focuses on Ms. Bixby when she is alive and vibrant.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was purchased for my personal library

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