I'm a bit late getting to Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life, by Wendy Mass. Tons of people reviewed it late last year (list below), and it was nominated for a 2006 Cybils award for Middle Grade fiction. I found it a surprisingly profound title, more so than one would normally expect from a standalone children's book.
On the first day of summer vacation, the summer that Jeremy Fink is due to turn thirteen, Jeremy receives an unexpected gift from the father who died when Jeremy was eight. Opening a package from an unknown lawyer's office, he finds a smooth wooden box, with four keyholes, engraved with the words THE MEANING OF LIFE: FOR JEREMY FINK TO OPEN ON HIS 13TH BIRTHDAY. Unfortunately, the lawyer has misplaced the keys to the box, four different keys, all of which are needed to open the box.
Jeremy and his best friend Lizzy (no, they aren't secretly in love with each other, they're just lifelong best friends) spend the summer on a quest to find the keys that will open the box. The quest takes them to unexpected places, and encounters with interesting people. Jeremy and Lizzy both grow and learn along the way, and find surprises at the end of the quest.
Wendy Mass's characterization is strong, especially in reference to Jeremy (portrayed in the first person). Jeremy collects unusual candies, and lives primarily on skittles and peanut butter sandwiches. He's fairly cautious for his age, nervous about traveling around New York City without an adult to accompany him. The scenes where Jeremy and Lizzy learn about Metro-cards to get into the subway are priceless. Jeremy bears the emotional scars of a kid who has lost a parent. Though enough time has passed that it's not a gaping wound, he still carries with him the knowledge that the worst can happen at any time. He also, despite his early protestations of not having anything romantic going on with Lizzy, struggles a bit with the transition to young adulthood, and the fact that Lizzy is female. It's awkwardness, not sexual interest, which I found a refreshingly realistic approach.
Here are a few of the many passages that I flagged, to give you a feel for Mass's writing, and Jeremy's personality:
"As the limo heads into parts unknown, we amuse ourselves by pressing the buttons to open and close the partition. Then we look outside to count how many people turn their heads as the limo passes them. Once that gets old, I wrap the box in the bubble wrap, and I can't help popping the bubbles. Lizzy jumps every time." (Chapter 9)
"It's great watching someone who loves what he does. Dad was like that, at the comics store. Mom loves the library, and Lizzy's dad loves the post office. I wonder if I'll ever find something I love as much." (Chapter 14)
"Maybe this is why people go to church. For a sense of belonging, of escaping the everyday routine where people don't generally burst into group song. I've only been here ten minutes, and I feel it already. I also feel Lizzy tugging on my shirt. It takes only a second to realize I'm the only one still standing. I hurriedly sit down." (Chapter 15)
"I inhale deeply. Funnel cake. Cotton candy. Fudge. Corn dogs. This is what Heaven must smell like. I stop short as we pass a booth that is new this year. A man in a red apron is dipping a Twinkie on a stick into the fried dough that they use to make the funnel cakes. It's a fried dough Twinkie! My mouth waters. I have to wipe the drool off with my shirt." (Chapter 18)
It's a masterful mix of profound, adult thoughts and kid-like interests. My favorite scene is one in which Jeremy and Lizzy have to give false names to get into a building in New York.
"Lizzy signs the clipboard and pushes it over to me. She signed in as Tia Castaway, the name of the little girl in our favorite Disney movie when we were little, Escape to Witch Mountain. She gives me a little kick on the shin, and since we're supposed to be brother and sister, I carefully write Tony Castaway and push the clipboard back to the man." (Chapter 6)
OK, I just like that one because Escape to Witch Mountain is still my favorite Disney movie. But I liked the whimsy/pop cultural reference to the whole thing. I feel a kinship to Wendy Mass, because she thought of referring to Tony and Tia Castaway. (And I feel an urge to go an re-watch the movie, which my brother just got for me on DVD last Christmas, but that's another story).
I do have a couple of criticisms. I thought that the book was a little bit long - the story dragged for me a bit in the middle, and it took me a while to get through the book. I also felt somewhat manipulated by the ending, though I will admit that it made some questionable things more clear. Even as I was feeling manipulated, I couldn't resist the ending, either, and spent a lot of time thinking about it once I had closed the book. Thinking about the meaning of my life. And people could do a lot worse than read a book that makes them think like that. Recommended for middle school readers, especially those with a philosophical or questioning bent, or those fond of treasure hunts.
Book: Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life
Author: Wendy Mass
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Original Publication Date: November, 2006. This book was a 2006 Cybils nominee for Middle Grade Fiction.
Age Range: 9-12
Source of Book: Santa Clara City Library
Other Blog Reviews: Kit Lit Annotations, Book Bits, Children's Literature Book Club, Big A little a, Blogger Book Club, Book Highlights, Welcome to my Tweendom, propernoun.net, bookshelves of doom. See also an author interview by Little Willow, and a description by Franki from A Year of Reading of a meeting with Wendy Mass.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.