Saturday, February 23, 2008

George Harrar

Parents Wanted
by George Harrar
Recommended Age: 12+

Maybe the thing that first drew you to Harry Potter is the idea of a basically good kid with a rotten family, or the orphan whose upbringing doesn't properly prepare him for life. If this is true, there may be something in this book for you. It is part of the Milkweed Children's Literature Project, a series of books for children that is supposed to foster respect for other cultures, nature, and historically downtrodden people. Topical literature for children, you could call it. Not classics, never will be, but maybe not a bad story to pass a day off with.

The narrator in this one is twelve-year-old Andy Fleck, whose parents were very bad ones. His father, a thief, has been in and out of prison, and his mother, a drunk, has had it "up to here" with the trouble Andy gets into, so the upshot is, they surrender their parental rights and Andy gets sent to an orphanage. In between stints in various foster homes, that is, most of which don't last very long (ranging from one home where he lasted two seconds, to another home where he would have been adopted if the wife and natural daughter hadn't been jealous of the time the husband spent with Andy).

Now Andy is on basically his "last chance." A nice young couple who can't have their own children, and came looking for a 6-year-old, took a shine to Andy somehow and after several visits, he's moved into their home for a "six month trial." Jeff, the father-to-be, is an English teacher on sabbatical for a year, and his interest in Andy is almost creepy. Laurie, the mother-to-be, is a TV news correspondent who doesn't seem to like Andy very much. And of course Andy himself is no Joey Pigza. He is on Ritalin, of course, and for good reason. But besides that, he's developed a sort of orphanage mentality, kind of like the prison mentality or the welfare mentality. As the book jacket says, he knows how not to get caught, and how to manipulate adults; and he also knows all kinds of ways to make trouble, and resents authority. He's a tough kid, and I guess the story is about whether or not Jeff and Laurie can get him to settle down and adopt them as his parents.

It is a very serious and well-written story about a troublesome but basically good-hearted little boy whose birth parents have given up on him and who is now hoping to become part of a real family. It's a moving and gripping story, hard not to get involved emotionally in the ups and downs of the boy's quest for a family of his own. Andy really goes a long way toward screwing things up for himself, partly as a result of ADD and partly because of the influence on him of his jailbird father, his drunk mother, the cynical kids at the Home, and the bad experiences he's had in previous foster homes. Now it looks like he might have a really good family and have them for keeps. But the question that will keep you on the edge of your seat, until almost the last page of the book is: will Andy blow it? Will he mess up his last and best chance?

He doesn't do anything quite as melodramatic as cutting a girl's nose of à la Joey Pigza. But he does tick off his teachers and school principal, he steals money, he plays mailbox baseball on a bicycle, he behaves in a rebellious and hurtful manner, and does even worse things that, if I told you about them, might spoil the excitement for you. I'll bet you'll have a hard time not crying for Andy Fleck, if the tension doesn't get to you first.

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