Four youngsters are about to start middle school – Hannah and Jake Schwartz, Danny Uribe, and Dorothy Wu. They attend San Paulo (California) Junior High. They of course have the ‘usual’ concerns including who likes who, friendships that come and go, who is going to be the best basketball player, and how to be the ‘queen bee’ and stay on top.
But these four students have an additional challenge facing them. Gangs are in the neighborhood around the school. Gangs are recruiting, and one of the San Paulo Junior High students will see an opportunity to be a big shot by joining the gang. But the consequences may prove disastrous.
Author Teddy Steinkellner has packed a lot of story into this middle grade YA novel. He tells the story from all four points of view, along with a few extra bits (such as the school announcements from the Principal). But it’s not just a narrative that makes up this story, we have text/on-line chat transcripts, stories written for classes, sign-up sheets, sex-ed Q&A sheets, and just about anything else that middle schoolers might use to communicate.
Steinkellner does a really nice job of keeping the story moving and the multiple points of view and forms of story-telling really help this. A lot of what happens here is the ordinary – the day-to-day concerns about friendships – which will be of interest to many students. We don’t get much classwork – we understand that they have a sex-ed class, math class, and creative writing.
But maybe junior high students in California grow up a lot faster than those in the Midwest. In rural U.S. we don’t have the gang problems that provide the real conflict in the story. (WARNING -POTENTIAL SPOILER AHEAD) The scene of the gang initiation is beyond violent. It is brutal and it is vehement. Our thirteen year old gets beaten within an inch of his life and each strike, each blow to the head, each gouge to the eyes or punch to the groin is meticulously described by the victim while he counts the seconds. His goal is to survive the brutal attack for a specific length of time and then he becomes a member of the gang.
While I don’t believe that we have these issues in the rural Midwest, I can see some of the more aggressive middle schoolers deciding that this sort of initiation might be a good idea to prove how tough he is and starting it up.
When a gang-related stabbing happens later in the book, it isn’t unexpected to the adult reader – in fact it’s the only potential outcome for a friend who’s become a gang member – it is also quite violent and exciting.
Though there isn’t a lot of violence here, what there is comes on without warning and is detailed explicitly. And it isn’t really needed. There’s enough here to appeal to middle school readers, but the inclusion of gangs and violence sets it apart and makes it much less appealing.
Looking for a good book? Trash Can Days by Teddy Steinkellner may appeal to your junior high student if you live in areas where violence is a way of life and something that thirteen year olds have to face, but the gang violence inside may drive other readers away.
I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
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Trash Can Days: A Middle School Saga
author: Teddy Steinkellner
hardcover, 352 pages