Linda Urban‘s new novel The Center of Everything is in many ways typical middle-grade fare. It’s the story of twelve year old Ruby Pepperdine who is the typical “good girl”–she knows just what to do to keep everyone happy. She plays second fiddle to her dramatic best friend, Lucy, and she’s very responsible. She also knows how to fly just under the radar at school so that she never garners much unwanted attention–good or bad–for herself. A very unwelcome change happens in her life when her beloved grandmother, Gigi, unexpectedly dies. Ruby’s great failure in life is that the last time she saw Gigi, she failed to do what a very sick Gigi wanted–she failed to “listen,” which is all Gigi wanted her to do. Now it’s Bunning Day, the day her town celebrates Founding Father Captain Bunning’s invention of doughnuts. Ruby has won the Bunning Day essay contest, so at the parade she is slated to read her essay. Ruby also sees this as her last chance to the have her wish–that everything involving her grandmother will work out the way it was supposed to. Of course, as we are privy to all the events that lead up to the Bunning Day celebration, we see that having everything work out as it’s supposed to is slightly more complicated that merely paying heed to a dying Gigi’s request: Ruby alienates Lucy and makes a new friend in the free-thinking Nero DeNiro, so the middle grade issues of jealousy and the beginning of boy-girl friendship are added to the issues of grief and coming-of-age angst.
I found this short novel a bit choppy in its narrative due to the back-and-forth nature of it. One chapter we’ll be with Ruby on Bunning Day and the next we’ll be back in time in the days leading up to it. I don’t know if it’s actually as choppy as it felt to me or of it’s just because I read in such small allotments of time. There are nods to a couple of books that are somewhat related by plot (A Wrinkle in Time and When You Reach Me), and though I love both of these books, even this felt a bit weak and not so fully developed. I did note note a few places where I thought she got both the insight and the voice just right. Here’s one:
. . . Even back then Ruby was good at figuring out what she was supposed to do.
In preschool, for example, she figured out that the good kids played in the classroom, and the really bad kids got time-outs and calls home and didn’t get to play much at all. But the in-between kids? The ones who were mostly good but might be having a “difficult moment” got to go the special playroom with the climbing wall and the cushiony floor and the things to swing around on until they cooled off a little. The preschool teachers didn’t need you to be perfect–just mostly good. So Ruby had enough “difficult moments” to get to play in the playroom, but not so many that she’d have to sit in the hall or lose stars from her behavior chart. (26-7)
I enjoyed The Center of Everything, but it’s not a book I couldn’t put down. Linda Urban is great at capturing the voice of the child on the cusp of something new and different and a little bit frightening, but something about this one seems a little off or under-done, somehow. (Harcourt, 2013)
Content note: Lucy, Ruby’s best friend, has two fathers. While the nature of their relationship is never clarified, it can only be assumed since there is never a mother of any kind mentioned, that neither is a not step-father. This is the second book I’ve read that was published this year that has this family situation presented. (The first one is The Year of Billy Miller, in which the mention is very brief and not quite as pointed.) I’m assuming from this that this is probably the way things will be more and more with new books.
Related links and reviews elsewhere:
- My review of Hound Dog True by Linda Urban
- Review at Geo Librarian
- Review at Heavy Medal, the Mock Newbery Blog