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When a book has a fantastic opening line, one that tickles me or instantly sucks me into a setting or makes me fall in love with a character, I am a happy reader. To whit: “The only thing Ned Button had caught in his life was the mumps, and even then he had fumbled, getting them only half as bad as the rest of the class, then out of quarantine and back to school before the others and unable to share in their tales of fevers and bumps when they returned.”

Poor Ned Button. He’s small, he’s picked on, and he doesn’t have good luck. Now that his cousin, Tugs, has gained fame for unmasking a con man and possibly changing the bad luck of the Button family, he feels even smaller. For the briefest of moments he envisions what life might be like as one of “the boys” after he catches the football thrown by town hero, Lester Ward as he boards a train to play football for the University of Iowa. But then Burton Ward tackles him from behind and steals the ball. Ned stands up to Burton after Ralph Stump, his best friend, hauls him up off the ground and throws Ned at Burton. “Every missed catch, every dropped ball, every past insult he’d taken from Burton surged up in Ned, up through his belly, up into his head filling it with red heat. Then that fury flew down his arm and out his fist, connecting with Burton’s gut, but not making a dent.” (4)

Readers of The Luck of the Buttons (Candlewick, 2010) will be thrilled to return to the Button family fold. While Tugs does appear from time to time, this is Ned’s story. If at times he feels invisible in his large, loud and opinionated extended family, he is a keen observer and is often a wry commentator. When Grandaddy Ike offers to give Ned tips on football strategy, Ned really looks at him. “He was soft like a scarecrow whose stuffing had all settled to the middle. His mustache grew out wide and white in all directions, and his fingers were knobby twigs. How did Ned’s great-granddaddy, the grandfather of his own father, know words like defense and end zone?”

““I don’t know, Granddaddy. You’re older than football, aren’t you?” said Ned.” (60) Ned keeps an open mind and is soon raking out a miniature field upon which Granddaddy uses crabapples as football players to share strategy. Ned soon learns that size doesn’t matter. Burton’s team is bigger and stronger, but smart and fast can win. That is, If Ned’s team plays smart and Burton quits being a no-show. The warm intergenerational relationship between Ned and Granddaddy Ike is subtly drawn with humor and tenderness.

 Although nominally set during the Great Depression, this isn’t a “Great Depression” book. However, the reader may infer how families coped during the time, like the fact that real footballs were too expensive for most families, but a football could be made with paper and twine. Ned dearly wishes to travel to Iowa City to watch Lester play a football game. His father puts the kibosh on his request with one word and a stab of a boiled potato, “Costs.” His mother’s reasons are myriad, “Thievery. Rowdiness. Drinking. Gambling. Wild driving.” Ned’s mother, Mina, is an imposing presence in his life. Even Ralph steers clear of her. He knows her opinion about “that Stump boy.” Other secondary characters, especially Ned’s sister, Gladdy, are well drawn and add breadth to the scenes they inhabit.

 This is a gentle story that begs to be read aloud. Universal and timeless themes of fitting in, dealing with bullies and fulfilling dreams will speak to all audiences. Young readers will root for Ned. They will laugh, but tears are possible and hearts will be warmed. Don’t let this one fall under the radar. It’s one of my middle grade favorites of 2012.

Recommended by: Brenda Kahn, Librarian, New Jersey USA

See more of her recommendations at: http://proseandkahn.livejournal.com/

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