The 2015-16 Isinglass Teen Read Committee is up and running and I’ve been working my way through nominations received from 7th and 8th grade students since the start of the school year. The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall, is realistic fiction (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2015) and, to be honest, I loved this book.
Pearsall has crafted a delightful story of redemption by combining information based on American folk artist James Hampton’s life and our hero, fictional character Arthur Owens. After his father’s death, Arthur struggles to cope with the loss of a man he loved and feared. He struggles to express his feelings when his mother clears the house of every object that conjures memories of her husband. One day Arthur can’t control his anger and he throws a brick at the local garbage picker – the Junk Man – who he sees wearing his dad’s hat (which the Junk Man salvaged from their trash) and is ordered by the court to serve community service with him every weekend. The Junk Man gives him a list of seven important items to collect with no substitutions allowed – light bulbs, foil, mirrors, wood, bottles, coffee cans, and cardboard. Eventually Arthur enters the old garage which serves as their meeting place and discovers that the Junk Man has transformed found trash and junk into a remarkable work of art titled “The Throne of the Third Heaven”.
Pearsall does well avoiding religious proselytizing, focusing instead on themes of friendship, loyalty, and love by slowly building relationships between Arthur and the Junk Man, his probation officer, his mother, and his new school friend Squeak. Arthur slowly grows and matures, learning a bit more about himself and his family as he gathers each Important Thing. Set in the early 1960’s, this story has less of a “nice and tidy” coming-of-age feel that you might get from a book for younger audiences (the Great Stone Face 4th-6th grade readers, say), which gave the relationships a feeling of authenticity. The book includes some brief biographical information about James Hampton and his sculpture The Throne of the Third Heaven, providing lots of opportunities for crossover lessons on American Folk Art.