Book: Front and Center (the third book about D.J. Schwenk)
Author: Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Age Range: 12 and up
Oh, how I love D.J. Schwenk. I love her family, too, but I especially love D.J. Front and Center is Catherine Gilbert Murdock's third and final book about D.J. And it is wonderful! Fans of Dairy Queen and The Off Season will not be disappointed. If you haven't read the first two books about D.J., I suggest that you go right now and request them from your library or your bookseller of choice. Because the third book will be out in October, and you'll want to read all three in order. The D.J. books are realistic young adult fiction, set in the small town of Red Bend, Wisconsin. D.J. is the third of four children, and the only girl, of a struggling dairy farmer. She's not much of a student, but she's a gifted athlete, and her basketball skill gives her hope of receiving an athletic scholarship. All three books about D.J. are funny and touching. What makes them stand out in particular is the depth of the characters - every single character positively breathes from the page. I find it difficult, in fact, to remember that the Schwenk family is fictional - I prefer to think of them, out there on their farm in Wisconsin, plugging along. (Stop reading here, if you haven't read books 1 and 2!)
In Dairy Queen, D.J. created a national sensation by trying out for the school football team. She was also involved in a clandestine relationship with the rival high school's quarterback, Brian Nelson. Brian, quite clearly (to the reader), didn't deserve her. In The Off Season, D.J. had to stop playing football because of a shoulder injury. She then took a leave of absence to help care for her older brother, Win, who broke his spine while playing football. She also had her heart broken by Brian, but grew up a little in realizing that she deserved better treatment.
As Front and Center begins, D.J. is headed back to school after a month-long absence. With the excitement of being on the football team past, her relationship with Brian over, and things settling down with her family, D.J. is looking forward to fading into the background, and being an ordinary student. However, she soon learns three things: 1) her hopes of a scholarship require her to overcome her paralyzing shyness, and become a leader on the basketball court (not to mention reaching out to coaches at colleges); 2) her outgoing friend Beaner wants her to be his girlfriend; and 3) her feelings for Brian, and his for her, aren't quite so easily turned off. Before she knows it, she finds herself front and center in school, and facing big decisions about college and her personal life.
Front and Center is a quieter book than The Off Season. The suspense isn't about who will or won't live, or even who will win the big game. Instead, the suspense is about D.J.'s personal growth, and whether she'll be able to overcome her own insecurities. And yet, I couldn't put the book down. I cared so much about D.J. that I had to see her through her challenges. As in the two earlier books, I love D.J.'s voice. She is quiet and self-deprecating, someone who doesn't even expect her family to go out of their way for her (though they do). Her introversion is palpable. Calling a college coach, even one she has met before, makes her break out into a sweat. But she has these little insights, about herself and other people, that are priceless. I could seriously quote a dozen passages, every one of them amazing. But I don't want to spoil the book for anyone. So I'll limit myself to three favorites:
"No more feeling like I was some fluttery girl who doesn't have anything better to do all day long than think about her boyfriend. Because I did have better things to think about, thank you very much, because I am not the kind of girl who has boyfriends; I'm the kind who's just friends with boys, which is totally different and which I'm actually kind of good at. I'd pulled the plug on that Brian Nelson cable station for good." (Chapter 1)
"I didn't say too much -- big surprise there -- but my mind was going about a million miles an hour, checking all the time to make sure I wasn't doing anything embarrassing, and then checking the other tables to see if anyone was looking at me funny, and then whenever someone asked me a question being extra careful to make my answer acceptable, you know, before I opened my mouth. Which put a brake, an even bigger brake, on my talking. (Chapter 7)
""Where have I heard that before?" I said. Well, actually I didn't say it. Actually I thought it up the next day. But I would have said it if I'd thought of it fast enough. Instead I just said something brilliant like "Oh, yeah?" Something you'd hear on a grade school playground." (Chapter 12)
Front and Center is a perfect coming of age story and a completely satisfying conclusion to the three-book series. It's a book that you'll finish with a deep sigh and a few tears, and then immediately want to get a copy of for the 12-to-15-year-old girls in your life. I can see the D.J. books being a tough sell, on the surface, to girls who aren't into sports or interested in knowing anything about small-town life (and thank goodness the publisher changed the cover of Dairy Queen for the paperback edition). But if you can get them to read even the first few pages, I believe that girls everywhere will find things to relate to in D.J. Her humor, her inability to see herself as others see her, her struggle between the safe relationship and the one that makes her heart race -- these are the things that make D.J. someone everyone should have the chance to know. It couldn't hurt to try the series on boys, too - they'll find some good tips on leadership and dating. As for me, even though I thought that the author wrapped the series up beautifully, I'm still a bit sad that there won't be any other books about D.J.
I apologize for reviewing this book so early (publication is in October). And I will remind you about the book again when it's published. But I just feel so strongly that people should get these books into kids hands, starting with Dairy Queen, that I didn't want to wait to talk about Front and Center. These books, Front and Center especially, have my very highest recommendation.
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children
Publication Date: October 19, 2009
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher. Quotes should be checked against the final book. Cover image courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
Other Blog Reviews: None for book 3 yet that I could find. Here are my reviews of Dairy Queen and The Off Season. Updated to add: Abby (the) Librarian review/love letter to DJ
Author Interviews: Cynsations, Shelf Elf
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.