Thursday, September 10, 2015

Review: The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall

Title: The Seventh Most Important Thing
Author: Shelley Pearsall
Publisher: Random House Children's
Publication date: September 8, 2015
Rating: ★★★

Summary (via Goodreads):

It was a bitterly cold day when Arthur T. Owens grabbed a brick and hurled it at the trash picker. Arthur had his reasons, and the brick hit the Junk Man in the arm, not the head. But none of that matters to the judge—he is ready to send Arthur to juvie for the foreseeable future. Amazingly, it’s the Junk Man himself who offers an alternative: 120 hours of community service . . . working for him.

Arthur is given a rickety shopping cart and a list of the Seven Most Important Things: glass bottles, foil, cardboard, pieces of wood, lightbulbs, coffee cans, and mirrors. He can’t believe it—is he really supposed to rummage through people’s trash? But it isn’t long before Arthur realizes there’s more to the Junk Man than meets the eye, and the “trash” he’s collecting is being transformed into something more precious than anyone could imagine. . . .

Inspired by the work of American folk artist James Hampton, award-winning author Shelley Pearsall has crafted an affecting and redemptive novel about discovering what shines within us all, even when life seems full of darkness.

Many thanks to Random House Children's for sending me this electronic copy via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

The Seventh Most Important Thing caught my attention as soon as I read the description. A middle-grade story about a kid who befriends a guy known as the Junk Man who has a secret project that involves garbage? Sign me up. Seriously. I'm all about trash-to-treasure transformations. (And alliteration, apparently. Say that ten times fast.)

Inspired by the real life story of real life artist James Hampton, the concept of the book was fascinating (I mean, look up the guy on Google – he is inscrutable, and his work is completely mesmerizing!), but unfortunately, I found the execution to be lacking.

Sadly, the character development in The Seventh Most Important Thing is disappointingly weak. Shelley Pearsall really only teases at each character's story, and it seems as though there are a lot of blanket statements that are used to describe a character and that we are supposed to somehow take at face value. For example: the carpenter boyfriend who is a little too nice all the time; the alcoholic father who is loved but not a great dad; James Hampton who is an enigma at the beginning of the novel, and an enigma at the end. It feels like a sketch of a novel, and you're sort of left asking yourself, "…And?" It's like a thread on a sweater – you want to keep pulling and pulling, except there's nothing left to grab.

The one other thing that really stands out to me in a negative way is the voice. The Seventh Most Important Thing is written in the third person perspective but from what sounds like a child's voice. The language feels very juvenile, as though the author has made a point to be particularly accessible to younger audiences. It's a bit of an odd place to be, given that the main character himself is a 14-year-old boy whose childhood and family life are less rosy than the childhood and family lives of most other 14-year-old boys represented in fiction. I feel like the author maybe deliberately dumbed down the writing specifically to accommodate a younger crowd – it felt a little bit disingenuous and unnecessary to me, like she was self-consciously trying to write children's fiction and shielding her readers in the process.

On the flip side, there are definitely some very abstract, sophisticated themes in the book – like the seven most important things that Shelley Pearsall loosely and subtly explores throughout the course of the story – so I can understand why she might have wanted to take on a younger voice here. It's a very conceptual story, and at times the seven most important things get shrouded in too much symbolism, so in that sense, the language choice does make it a little bit easier to follow. And as much as I'm harping on the way the story was told, I found that the voice did grow on me a bit – the juxtaposition of concept art and youthful narrative was interesting and charming and kind of precious at times. It kept the book from feeling too heavy or philosophical or academic.

It's hard for me to come up with a really solid opinion of this book. The idea of it is fresh and interesting and unexpected, but between the way it is written and the story the author decided to tell, I have to say that it's just not my cup of tea. I actually think The Seventh Most Important Thing could've been a stronger book had it been written as an adult novel. The quirkiness of the story would have been more successful, and the narrative jump from Arthur's teen years to adulthood would have felt perhaps less jarring. I'm interested to see what others think though – maybe I'm too idealistic about what middle-grade books should be!

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