Book Slob

No, I mean the book, Slob, by Ellen Potter. Philomel Books, 2009.

I snagged this book from the library almost entirely by random. I spotted a blue "Mystery" sticker on the spine, saw it was published within the past few years, and tossed it in the Home bag. See, I'm doing research on Middle Grade mysteries, so what better way to shop than the wonderful little blue "Mystery" sticker?

Except Slob is not really a mystery. And it's not really Middle Grade. What it is: the fabulous story of Owen Birnbaum and his struggle to make it through seventh grade faced with obesity, personal tragedy, and bullying. This kid has everything stacked against him. He's the fattest kid in school, his PE teacher hates him, and his one solace - his daily allotment of Oreo cookies - is being stolen. A bit of mystery comes in as Owen tries to smoke out the thief, but he's also hoping his new invention, Nemesis, can act as a visual time machine and show him who murdered his parents.

Yet both of these fascinating mysteries are secondary to Owen's personal struggles. He doesn't fit in, and he's still suffering from the loss of his parents. There's no strong emphasis on finding the Oreo thief or on the murder, rather the driving forces in the story are the Evil PE Teacher and the diabolical, scar-faced Mason Ragg. Will Owen be humiliated beyond endurance (the first chapter had me in tears when Mr. Wooly, the PE teacher, put Owen in a dog harness and made him flop around the mat like a beached whale)? Will Mason break out the switchblade he's rumored to carry in his sock?

The sophistication of the problems: switchblades, murder, abuse/cruelty made this book feel older than middle grade, as did the clarity with which these problems were shown. I had a hard time imagining St. Nick (5th grade) reading it, for example, and not finding it emotionally overwhelming. Goodness, even I found it overwhelming at times. Poignant, gripping, moving ... and overwhelming.

In short, for the mature middle grade reader, or teen/adult, this book is a treasure. The characters ring with authenticity, the plot moves swiftly and directly, and the outcome is fully satisfying. I wanted to adopt sweet Owen and his independent little sister (Jeremy) too. Did reading it push my understanding of MG mystery? Not really, but it made me a better, more thoughtful person, which I think is a superior outcome, don't you?

PS. I will pass it on to St. Nick, and see what happens.