The Last Newspaper Boy in America is a middle grade novel set in the small town of Steele, PA. Wil David is looking forward to taking over the town paper route from his older brother, Sonny. However, the day that Wil turns 12 (the traditional day on which the route changes hands), he learns that the newspaper has decided to eliminate home delivery to Steele. Not being called Wil of Steele for nothing, Wil launches a campaign to get the paper's management to repeal their decision. He also investigates a crooked carnival game, copes with a pesky neighbor girl, and worries about his family's shaky finances. He's a resourceful and engaging hero.
Everything in The Last Newspaper Boy in America is so over the top that it feels a bit like a fantasy, though I'd officially classify this as realistic fiction. It's half-way to Roald Dahl in tone. The county seat is called Dweebville. Wil's mother (Magnolia, who lives in Steele) is so obsessed with books that she never stops reading ("Even in college, Magnolia would pick the longest checkout line at the cafeteria or at the registrar's so she could sneak in a few pages of whatever she was in the middle of reading.") Wil is a prodigy who broke a family record for throwing papers accurately when he was only 3, and was so stubborn as a small child that he refused to attend school (he's homeschooled). His brother Sonny is so slow that every time anyone use any kind of colloquial expression, Sonny takes it literally. (Senor Lopez: "There will be a hue and cry!" Sonny: "Hugh who?") It's not fantasy, but it's not quite real, either. I personally had a little trouble adjusting to this writing style, but I think that kids will like it.
For example, here's the passage in which Sonny has clearly had bad news about the paper over the phone, and the family is waiting to hear what it is:
"Sonny?" Magnolia asked. The air had stopped moving in the kitchen. The second hand on the stove ticked to a standstill.
"What did he say, Sonny?" Wil asked, more insistently. Outside, the birds stopped chirping. Drivers stepped on their brakes, bringing their cars to a halt without knowing why. Wil realized he was holding his breath. "Tell me!" He knew it was bad news." (Page 16, ARC)
The great thing about this approach is that it keeps the feel of the book light and kid-friendly, not at all message-y, even when Corbett is covering some ultimately serious topics (the decline of newspaper home delivery, the struggles of small towns once they lose their manufacturing base). For example:
The Cooper County Caller had decided that Wil, and his family, and his friends, and his neighbors didn't count enough -- didn't make enough money -- to keep them in the news loop. If steam could have come out of Wil's ears, the library would have been able to charge admission as a sauna. (Page 54, ARC)
Wil's anger is real and personal. The image of steam coming out of his ears keeps it fun. I also personally enjoyed this quote:
"Wil read quite a bit, but wouldn't pick up any book with a cover that was pink, sparkly, or featured women's body parts. It was amazing how many books had just body parts on the cover -- feet, legs, torso. Wil had learned this functioned like a label warning him he would not be interested in the contents." (Page 61, ARC)
The chapter titles are all written like newspaper headings ("New Carrier Prepares Customer for Takeover", etc.). Even though there are references to email, websites, and the like, The Last Newspaper Boy in America still has an old-fashioned, small-town feel. An afterword explains why the child newspaper carrier is now rare. Another discusses the invention of the paperclip (referencing one of my college professors, Henry Petroski). There are a variety of interests among the characters in the book (photography, reading, cooking, drawing, aerodynamics, etc.), which will, I think, make The Last Newspaper Boy in America appealing to a wide range of readers.
I'd recommend this one to teachers for potential classroom read-aloud. I also think that homeschooling families might get an extra kick out of it. But really, The Last Newspaper Boy in America is an entertaining read for people of all ages. Recommended.
Publisher: Dutton Juvenile
Publication Date: September 3, 2009
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the author
Other Blog Reviews: None yet, but here is a brief review from Publisher's Weekly. See also my reviews of two other of Corbett's titles: Free Baseball and 12 Again. Updated to add: just found a rave review at Not Just for Kids.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.