Realistic fiction for kids has more baggage than other fictional genres for that age group. Fantasies and comedies and science fiction get to rely on the extraordinary to weave their tales. Historical fiction, meanwhile, has the nice veil of history in place to aid the writer in making their point. What does realistic fiction have? Reality. Cold, cruel, dead dogs and incurable disease-ridden reality. When people think of middle grade realistic fiction their minds sometimes go to deeply depressing works where horrible things happen to perfectly nice kids. Blame schools that equate misery with learning for that crime. My favorite works of realistic fiction move beyond obvious metaphors and big honking deaths to make their points in subtler, more amusing ways. No one’s going to necessarily accuse Lutricia Clifton’s Freaky Fast Frankie Joe of being a laugh riot, admitted. But with its appealing hero, recognizable cast of characters and strong plot this is one subtle little novel that wins you over before you even realized you needed convincing. Consider discovering it.
Here’s a basic rule of thumb. Anytime you run into four boys named Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, odds are you’re going to find them less than saintly individuals. That’s bad. What’s worse is if you suddenly discover you’re their big brother. Frankie Joe always led a life that he liked. He had lots of folks in the trailer park to watch over him and a mom that’s a lot more fun than the ones that make their kids go to school every day. Everything was just ducky until she went and got herself arrested. Now Frankie Joe’s father, a guy he’s never even met, appears out of the blue and takes the boy to middle-of-nowhere Plainview, Illinois. The deal is that Frankie Joe will stay there for the ten months his mom’s in the hoosegow, but ten months is too long for this boy. Not only are his newfound younger brothers a bother (particularly alpha male Matt) but his father’s some kind of stickler for self-improvement. That’s when a brilliant idea occurs. Frankie Joe’s fast on a bike. Really fast. Freaky fast. What if he started a delivery service and earned the money he needed to buy the stuff he’d use to get back to the old trailer park to wait out his mom? It’s a crazy plan but he’s sure it’ll work. That is, if he can just harden his heart to Plainview and the people who are in it.
Foster boys of the The Great Gilly Hopkins ilk are, as far as I can ascertain, less common than foster girls in middle grade literature. For every Frankie Joe you’ll find a dozen Home, and Other Big, Fat Lies or The Road to Paris titles. Why is it that foster girls are appealing but foster boys aren’t? To be perfectly frank, Frankie Joe isn’t really a foster kid either. He has a loving father and new family just sitting there waiting for him. The kind of situation many a kid would kill for . . . with the possible exception of the snarky younger sibs. Still, in many ways Frankie’s a foster kid at heart. He can’t connect to his new home, missing his old one, and rejects the family with members that reject him.
Kid and adult readers alike often find characters that stand out and ring true in the books they like the most. You don’t have to be likable to ring true, though. Honestly the character that felt pitch perfect to me from the first line onward was Matt, Frankie’s eldest little brother. He’s great little villain, albeit a three-dimensional one that makes a believable change of heart. Hell hath no fury like a smarty-pants scorned. When Frankie removes Matt from the top of the family, and school, pecking order (inadvertently, I might add) Matt is convinced that Frankie Joe is working on becoming a permanent member of the family. The scene where Matt discovers Frankie Joe’s ultimate plan is weirdly satisfying because the kid is just floored by the revelation that someone wouldn’t want to be number one. There’s a moment later where Frankie says to him, “I’m not sure being all you can be always means being number one, Matt.” It’s nice when the antagonist gets to have a bit of learning and growing alongside the hero, don’t you think?
Not that there aren’t off moments here and there. One librarian I know who read the book was baffled by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles references. The book mentions the kids seeing the movie in the theater, which makes you wonder if the book’s a period piece. There are cell phones in it, but these days a cell phone doesn’t necessarily preclude the idea that the book takes place in the past. We’ve had cells for a while now. There’s a Gameboy reference as well, though, and that confuses the issue a bit more. For me, these blips on the radar didn’t throw me off too much, but I was a little unconvinced by Frankie Joe suddenly calling his father “dad” three pages from the end of the book. It’s not that I wouldn’t be able to see that development coming. I just needed a little more help getting there.
If Frankie Joe has any literary relations out there, his closest kin might be Joey Pigza. What Frankie Joe lacks in Joey’s hyperactivity he makes up for in unreliable parentage and a world where he has to take his life in his own hands. And like Joey, Frankie Joe’s greatest strength is his ability to win the readership over to his side of things. You may not agree with his logic or his plans, but you like the darn kid. Not just because he’s put upon at the start, but because there’s something open and honest and original about him. We don’t run across too many perfectly nice and smart kids that skip school with reckless abandon in literature these days. Frankie Joe fills that niche and a couple others while he’s at it. A good kid in a good book written for good readers with good sense. Worth a reread too, while you’re at it.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker
- One for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
- Home and Other Big Fat Lies by Jill Wolfson
- Road to Paris by Nikki Grimes
First Sentence: “I don’t like the way some of our neighbors look at me when I walk past.”
- Ms. Yingling Reads loves the book but don’t even get her started about the cover.
- An article in the Rockford Register Star and one in the Freeport Journal Standard give some background on the book.
- An excerpt of the book can be found here.
- And here’s the Educators’ Guide.