Written by Pat Schmatz
Published by Candlewick, 2011
With keen insight into teens on the fringe, Schmatz tells the story of: Travis, an orphan living with his alcoholic grandfather; Velveeta, a witty, sarcastic, and insightful girl who recently lost the most important person in her life; and Bradley, nerdy, socially awkward, and kind. Velveeta’s quirkiness and color play off Travis’s restraint and wariness, which play off of Bradley’s social awkwardness. Together they form a satisfying triangle of some pretty human stuff.
All three characters have painful secrets they strain to hide every day. They’re drawn to one another as though recognizing the pain and isolation that secrets cause. Travis can’t read—not that he hasn’t tried. Schmatz has his character nailed, that the words “just try” can shut a kid like him down, that books are a source of anxiety and shame: “The pile of books at Travis’s feet crowded his legs, making him sit slightly sideways. If all the books in the room jumped him at once, they’d bury him. It would take days to punch his way up through the covers and the pages.”
Velveeta lives in a trailer park with a mother who obsesses over Velveeta’s troubled brother but pays her no attention. She wears a different brightly colored scarf every day to help her step into her colorful Velveeta persona. And Bradley makes up excuses why he’s late coming home after school because he’s preyed on by three bullies. The characters in the book are presented skillfully by what they notice, what they say, and how they interpret and react to their world
Especially memorable in the book are the fascinating and moving secret sessions before school as Mr. McQueen teaches Travis to read in a way that encourages, makes all things seem possible, and allows Travis to retain his dignity. We should all have had a Mr. McQueen in our lives. Just once.
Schmatz’s characters are wonderfully flawed and self aware in a way that invites readers in.
—Kari Baumbach, children’s literature enthusiast
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