I loved, loved, loved Catherine Gilbert Murdock's books about D.J. Schwenk (Dairy Queen, The Off Season, and Front and Center). So when I heard that Murdock had written a book called Heaven is Paved with Oreos, for a slightly younger audience, I scooped it up. I didn't even realize until reading a review at Book Nut last week that this new book is set in the Schwenk universe. What a lovely and unexpected gift!
Heaven is Paved with Oreos is told in journal fashion from the viewpoint of Sarah Zorn, best friend and science partner of D.J.'s younger brother, Curtis. It's the summer before freshman year, and Sarah and Curtis are pretending to be boyfriend and girlfriend, so that people will stop asking them if they are boyfriend and girlfriend. But Sarah is a bit concerned about another girl from their class who appears to want to be Curtis' real girlfriend, making Sarah self-conscious about, say, going to Curtis' baseball games. Meanwhile, Sarah's grandmother, who everyone calls Z, invites Sarah to accompany her on a week-long pilgrimage to Rome. The trip turns out to be a bit more than Sarah bargained for, but it certainly contributes to her emotional growth over the course of the summer.
So, basically Heaven is Paved with Oreos is a coming of age story, a book about family, and a book about taking baby steps towards boy-girl relationships. It falls to the upper end of middle grade, I think, given the 14-year-old narrator, and a storyline involving the father of Z's illegitimate child, born some 45 years earlier. But it is absolutely perfect for middle school-age readers, I think.
I fear that some fans of the Dairy Queen books will be a bit disappointed by Heaven is Paved with Oreos, because the content is a bit less mature. But personally, I was happy to be spending time back in D.J.'s universe, however I got there. I found myself reading Heaven is Paved with Oreos slowly, because I was just so happy to be spending time with the characters. D.J. is a character in this book, someone Sarah looks up to and gets advice from. But Murdock is quite clear throughout that this is Sarah's story. It's not necessary to have read the Dairy Queen books to read this one, though it undoubtedly enhances appreciation of the book.
One thing that I especially liked about Heaven is Paved with Oreos is how Murdock handles the journal style storyline. She tells you, briefly and without taking you out of the story, where Sarah is when she's writing each journal entry. There's an entry, then she goes somewhere and writes there, then she goes home and writes there, and so on. This lends an immediacy to the narration that works well. One might think to question whether a fourteen-year-old girl would really sit in a cafe in Rome writing in her journal. But Sarah is a strong enough character to totally pull it off.
I LOVE that Sarah is interested in science. That's the source of the bond between Sarah and Curtis, a mutual fascination with physical science (studying animal skeletons, and so on). She's also just ... secure in who she is. She has things she is working on, sure, but she's happy to eat nothing but vanilla ice cream, for instance, and work on projects that other people think are disgusting. Here are a couple of snippets, to give you a feel for Sarah's voice:
"I wanted to be sympathetic -- Paul looked so upset -- but I could not help being reasonable. Reasonableness is a byproduct of a scientific mind." (Page 11-12)
Oh, I would have been friends with Sarah when I was fourteen. And this:
"Lady Z does not eat anything made with wheat. She says the hardest part was giving up Oreos, but they are made with wheat flour, so even though they are absolutely delicious and perfect, they're out. If I ever stopped eating wheat, I would make a rule that I could only be 99% wheatless. The last 1% I would leave for Oreos." (Page 16).
Curtis is, well, Curtis. For a character who says hardly anything, he still feels completely himself. Like this:
"I nodded. Curtis stared at the floor, but that is not unusual for him." (Page 26).
Lady Z is more complex. I like that though she's larger-than-life (not at all a regular grandma), she's also clearly flawed. Part of Sarah's growing up throughout the book involves coming to terms with the fact that you can love someone even if they aren't perfect. As Z is not.
Fans of Murdock's books about D.J. Schwenk will definitely want to give Heaven is Paved with Oreos a look. I loved it, and plan to keep my copy for when Baby Bookworm is older. There are spoilers for the Dairy Queen books, so even though this newest book is appropriate for a somewhat younger audience, readers unfamiliar with the series may want to wait to read the Dairy Queen books first. I think that the whole series is wonderful.
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers (@HMHBooks)
Publication Date: September 3, 2013
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
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