~ Review by Amanda Smith
Some books blink on writers’ radars long before they become common knowledge. These books show up in a plethora of kidlit groups; in Harold Underdown’s posts with comment threads as long as my arm; and on agents’ wish lists. MS. BIXBY’S LAST DAY (2016, Walden Pond Press) is one of those books, and so, when it finally appeared on my library shelf, I expected literary greatness. I expected my need for boxes and boxes of Kleenex. It absolutely exceeded those expectations. What I did not expect was the laugh-out-loud humor. I’m not talking a giggle or a guffaw here. More than once I exasperated my family with outbursts of knee-slapping laughter. John David Anderson’s sharp humor is exactly what this book needed to balance the heart-wrenching story.
Ms. Bixby is that one teacher, that if you were really lucky, you had the honor of knowing. A Good One. The teacher who really sees you, the one for whom you want to be your very best, the one who makes even the boring stuff fun. And Ms. Bixby has cancer. In fact, she is so sick that she cannot even make her Last Day party at school.
But Brand, one of her sixth graders, still has something important left to say to her. He enlists his friends, Steve and Topher, to help him follow through on his plan to give her the perfect last day, not realizing that both his friends need to see to her as much as he does. Because, just as she saw him, she saw each one of them.
Told in three alternating first person narratives, the voices of the three boys, Anderson takes us along on their mission. Snippets of information about each character are carefully unpacked through what these characters show of themselves, and what they know (and don’t know) about their two friends. We get to know their strengths, insecurities, family life and what Ms. Bixby means to each of them, both from the character’s own point of view, and the others’ points of view. We see how they individually, but with the help of their friends, overcome their respective major obstacles, making it possible for them to bid Ms. Bixby goodbye.
MS. BIXBY'S LAST DAY left some hilarious images burned in my mind forever – I will never look at cheesecake the same way. It has given my son and me some precious shared quotes like “I was in the basement, eating a body”… “Biscotti”. But more than that, MS. BIXBY'S LAST DAY reminded me to see my children and my students; to recognize everyone has a back story, or a struggle; and to see things through no matter what.
John David Anderson is masterful at showing instead of telling. He never tells the reader outright what the characters’ struggles are, but he meticulously unfurls each character until the reader has a complete picture of Band, Steve, Topher, Ms. Bixby and the supporting cast.
MS. BIXBY'S LAST DAY is also a study in voice. Anderson provides an engaging introduction of each character, their voices so distinct, that at the end of each character’s first paragraph, the reader already has a strong sense of each kid’s personality.
“Rebecca Roudabush has cooties, I’m not making this up. We’ve run tests. She came up positive on the cootometer, all red, off the charts.” (Topher, the creative boy with a vivid imagination)
“We found out on Tuesday. I was wearing a red sweater. Not bright red. More of a maroon, like the color of cherries – real cherries, not the ones you find in canned fruit that tastes a little like medicine.” (Steve, the detail-oriented, analytical stats-wizard)
“You can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose. That’s something my dad told me. Turns out … not entirely true.” (Brand, the rough-around-the-edges tough guy who idolizes his dad.)
Don’t you already love these three boys? By the end of the book you will be completely won over, cheering them on to succeed. In true Ms. Bixby fashion.
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