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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Heavy Medal Finalist #8: Pay Attention, Carter Jones

Introduced by Heavy Medal Committee Member Jen Bartkus

We meet Carter Jones on the morning of his first day of sixth grade.  Our arrival into his life coincides with the surprise of a butler on his doorstep, sent by his grandfather’s estate to help Carter’s mom navigate life with four kids, while his father is stationed in Germany.    Expecting a typical story of the ups and downs of a new middle-schooler, I was instead wonderfully surprised with a much deeper, richer story detailing the realization that the loss of a loved one, no matter what the circumstances, is tremendously difficult and hard to express.   Told with humor, tenderness and conviction to the principle of: “Make good decisions and remember who you are,” Carter and The Butler journey into many life lessons. Themes of disappointment, determination and finding joy in the unenjoyable are everywhere and what author Gary D. Schmidt does so well is to be subtle, to hide these lessons in the usual  – walking the dog, eating dinner at the local pizza shop, and driving the car. He intricately weaves Carter’s present day emotions with those from a previous trip to the Australian wilderness with his father.  

And since we only see the father through Carter’s eyes, Schmidt tasks the Butler with teaching Carter to be better, to be a gentleman in whatever he does.  That line, that level of personal responsibility is something that I think a teen reading this book would really relate to…hoping to be better but wondering if it is possible.

“And so you face a curious dilemma, one you will face often if you choose to live a life of integrity and challenge.  Is it better to consider all ideas, to determine which one seems to you most reasonable and worthy, and then to speak your mind?  Or better to follow old patterns and to acquiesce quietly into a general conformity?” (125)

Along with these life lessons, The Butler brings cricket to the small New York community where Carter lives.  The reader learns the ins and outs of this sport, alongside Carter and we see just how important it can be in bringing together a family, a team and a community. (I smiled to myself as I wrote this because cricket seems so random, yet fits so perfectly with whom The Butler is and whom Carter hopes to be).

This book is wonderful – I laughed as much as I cried and look forward to hearing what others think.

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Steven Engelfried About Steven Engelfried

Steven Engelfried is the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at sengelfried@yahoo.com.

Comments

  1. Alissa Tudor says:

    There were quite a few things I enjoyed about this book. I thought the writing style was perfect. The abundance of run-on sentences adds to the characterization and feels authentic to the voice of a middle school boy. It is almost stream of consciousness and rambling- exactly how I would picture his thoughts. The writing is colloquial. I think the characterization of Carter is what makes this novel.

    I thought the constant repetition of elements added a nice touch. The “Australian tropical thunderstorm”, for example, almost took on a motif-like quality with the way it was repeated throughout the entire book.

  2. Besides being beautifully written and laugh out loud funny, it masterfully conveys how meaningful it is when men and boys show up for each other. The Butler teaches Carter how to be there for his family (taking sisters to the ballet whether it interests him or not) and Krebbs to be there for Carter (in an especially moving passage). The powerful insights about the emotional lives of boys and what can be done when one has a dad who’s not doing the job were very effective and it seems like a unique topic for middle grade fiction.

  3. Rachel Wadham says:

    One of the things I always love about Schmidt is how he captures a range of characters. He can write so that each one plays a meaningful role in the book. For me in this book the Butler really stands out especially as we juxtapose him with Carter. The formal Butler with Carter’s informal approach are perfect foils to each other, and it is delightful to see how his informal ways change subtly as Carter develops throughout the novel. How these two characters play off each other is so engaging and produces so much humor throughout the book. They are both engaging to the child audience in that lots of kids can see themselves in Carter and they can also see the adults they know in the Butler. I must say at first I was a little put off by the constant mention of Australian thunderstorms that Alissa mentions, but then as the truth revealed itself I saw how masterful this was in telling us something important about Carter and his past experiences without revealing it to early in the plot arc. This connecting piece that bridges past and present brings forward not only the theme but also creates Carter’s emotional development. I think this book builds a lot off the “Marry Poppins” archetypes of lots of other books/movies, but does it with fresh engaging characters and a timely and important plot/theme that will resonate with many kids who have been disappointed by the adults in their lives.

  4. Courtney Hague says:

    I really appreciated how Schmidt chose to use cricket as an overarching metaphor. I think he artfully takes a sport that I imagine most of us saw as an odd choice for a book about an American middle school student and by the end makes it so integral to the plot that I couldn’t imagine the story being about any other sport.

    I really liked his choice to include so much repetition especially from the Butler, but also from Carter who really is the Butler’s foil. The Butler’s repeated “Make good decisions and remember who you are” is such a good phrase but when he changes it just once to “Make good decisions and remember who loves you” it really drives that point home for both the readers and Carter.

  5. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    I also appreciated that the humor was sometimes (not always) pretty subtle. Like when Carter first meets the Butler. Carter asks if the milk he just bought is one percent?” and the response is “Certainly not.” (6). He brings the milk to his mom and uses the same “certainly not” phrase when she notes that it’s not one percent (7). Carter is kind of mocking the Butler’s way of talking, but also we’re seeing something about Carter’s cleverness and sense of fun. Then about 50 pages later Billy Colt comes over for breakfast: “Is this one percent?” said Billy Colt. “Certainly not,” Emily said (53). By this point, Emily isn’t mocking the Butler, like Carter did earlier; it’s more that she’s adopted his way of talking (and his attitude about milk). It’s funny, but it also subtly demonstrates the influence that the Butler is having on the household. And the author trusts readers to notice this on their own, not calling attention to it or trying to play it for bigger laughs.

  6. Samuel Leopold says:

    Nice intro. Jen! I have always enjoyed Gary Schmidt’s work and his book OKAY FOR NOW is still a favorite of mine. This story of Carter Jones feels so real to me that I can see Carter’s spirit in the faces of many of my students who, over the years , have experienced a loss that is a weight way too hard for a young person to carry. This book shows how one courageous sixth grader, with the help of some friends and a strange butler, navigates this world of loss with smiles and tears. I too loved the humor as described by Steven and I was going to mention the cricket metaphor, but Courtney beat me to the punch.

    I enjoyed this book and read it with the heart of a middle school educator. Even if it does not win a medal, it will be a book I whole-heartedly recommend for years to come.

  7. Molly Sloan says:

    I enjoyed this book very much. Schmidt has such a way of disguising the monumental in the ordinary, as Jen expressed in her lovely introduction. You think you are just reading about cricket or walking the dog but suddenly you realize you are really reading what it means to be a faithful brother, a resilient athlete or a good friend. A “googly,” once defined in terms of cricket, became a metaphor for the life altering surprise of his father upending their family. Schmidt uses repetition the way a painter uses brush strokes. I knew the repeated flashbacks to the Australian rainstorm were going somewhere. Each flashback teased out a bit more detail, a bit more meaning. I knew I was reading art. Eventually we see Carter fully coming to terms with the loss of his brother, the heartbreak of his father’s betrayal and his role of the big brother his siblings need him to be, the young man his mother needs him to be. He remembers who he is. He is a gentleman and he makes good choices. I adore this book. Schmidt is a master at the craft. And I even learned some things about the most confusing sport I’ve ever tried to write. “Don’t let the bails come down!” Of course he wasn’t just talking about cricket, was he?

  8. Molly Sloan says:

    . . . .most confusing sport I’ve ever tried to *watch* (not write)

  9. Cherylynn says:

    I loved so much about this book. My problem was the cricket. I visualize so much of what I read. I found the cricket scenes did not make sense to me. Did anyone else have trouble following it?

    • Rachel Wadham says:

      I’m in agreement there Cherylynn, while I loved the motif of cricket, the descriptions really bogged me down and I personally don’t think there was enough definition to really engage me as a reader in seeing the game and how it is played. Schmidt is so evocative in his writing I will say I was a little disappointed in what I felt was a lack in the cricket descriptions.

  10. I was thoroughly (and pleasantly) surprised by this book, for many of the reasons others have already illuminated. In particular, I loved the contrast in voice between Carter and the Butler. So many of their interchanges (especially the early ones) are impossible to read without smiling.

    And I agree with those of you who mentioned that there are a lot of deep lessons about character and being a good person, presented in an appealing and non-didactic way.

    I also wanted to draw attention to the use of language, in particular the descriptive sections about Australia. I had bookmarked the initial description of the hike (Chapter 9) on my first read through. As a hiker and backpacker, I loved Carter’s combination of run-on sentences and economy of language to describe his impressions. But what got me on the re-read was the end of that section and what Carter was not yet ready to disclose:

    “We were down in the valley for five days. We never saw another person the whole time.
    We were just there. My father and me. Just there. Just us.
    We didn’t even talk that much.
    Hardly at all.”

    Knowing now what talk that “hardly at all” encompassed, it tears my heart apart even more. Masterfully done.

    • Molly Sloan says:

      Yes. I agree. Upon re-reading, where you know what’s coming in the end, the passages with his father in Australia are heartbreaking. And I love how the voice stays with Carter. Schmidt accomplishes the layers of meaning within Carter’s own voice; it never becomes a didactic narrator telling us how to interpret the flashbacks. This works for me as a reader. I think it is beautifully done. However I will say that it was a little lost on one of my very capable 6th grade readers. She said, “It keeps saying the same thing over and over. I just don’t get all the stuff about Australia.” I told her to keep reading and to look for shades of meaning that add up to new understanding, but she gave up on the book and never really felt the impact of those conversations/non-conversations between Carter and his dysfunctional father. This might be a book that is best read with kids as a read-aloud or a class novel where discussion can enrich the reading.

  11. Mary Zdrojewski says:

    The change in Carter’s character, from angry and snarky to compassionate older brother, was very well done. It was subtle and realistic, including the ups and downs of someone making real change, and it felt very authentic.

  12. Molly Sloan says:

    Agree. It did feel authentic. And it was incremental with balking and questioning and then deliberate deciding–much like real life changes. Never easy.

  13. Tamara DePasquale says:

    This was the first title I read at the beginning of the year, and it has remained one of my favorites. After rereading it, Pay Attention Carter Jones stands out as distinguished for many of the reasons mentioned previously and more.
    From the very first sentence, we are drawn into the story. Schmidt’s writing is spot-on, and Carter’s voice is so authentic. His pain and sense of loss is as palpable as the marble in his pocket. Yet, Schmidt sprinkles the story with enough humor to balance the good with the bad. From Ned’s throwing up and peeing on Billy Colt’s day lilies to the references to 1% milk and driving the Bentley, Schmidt’s humor allows Carter and the reader to slowly accept the reality and harshness of his father’s abandonment. This repetition also keeps the pacing steady, each hurt manageable, and Carter’s acceptance and growth true to his age and character.
    The banter between the Butler and Carter feels much like a cricket match – quick, precise, and the volley back and forth was seamless. I enjoyed every line, and reread each with the same appreciation for its wickedness! The cricket metaphor is brilliant, and never feels intrusive. (Admittedly, I found myself curious about cricket and watched several YouTube videos.)
    In addition to the writing, Schmidt gives this story such heart. We are truly rooting, okay, “cheering” for Carter and his family. We are on the sidelines watching him work to keep those “bails up,” and we are thrilled that he succeeds.
    I am hard-pressed to find significant flaws with anything. For me Pay Attention, Carter Jones is near perfect, and I’m eager to hear and learn from those who may disagree.

  14. Amanda Bishop says:

    Immediately after finishing this book I got up and ran to the first person I could find to tell them about this book. I loved the hilarity of a formal butler showing up to the chaos that was Carter’s house. The juxtaposition of these two characters and how their relationship develops is full of humor and tension. It’s perfect.

    Like other books this year, grief is very present. Both in the death of his brother as well as the absence of his father. It is so heartbreaking because Carter feels so abandoned and forgotten and is dealing with so much loss.

    I think the cricket, while a little overly detailed, was necessary. It allowed for Carter to connect to others and to gain confidence in himself.

  15. I really liked the beginning—great voice, funny, loved the male Mary Poppins premise. Although then of course it turns out to be one of those books that looks like it’s fun but turns out to be heavy, which is a pet peeve of mine. It’s one of the reasons I tended to avoid “sticker” books as a kid!

    I liked the Butler a lot, except that he came from some imaginary version of England where everyone is highly cultured with perfect manners. Also, I kept thinking it was set in the 60s for some reason. I liked the idea of cricket since it’s so quirky and unknown, but I would have like some clearer explanations.

    I didn’t like the Australia parts (Molly, I’m with your student there!). It seemed like a really long path to not that much of a pay off—of course he blames himself, that’s what kids do, even without dramatic snake encounters. I thought it would have been more impactful to have a scene where he confesses that incident to the butler, so we get his current emotion about it. And without all the flashbacks, there would have been space for us to learn about cricket along with Carter. And focusing on preparing for the match would give it a stronger story spine.

  16. Courtney Hague says:

    I’ve been thinking about this for a couple of days and I came here just now to comment on the Butler. While I really liked him and his male Mary Poppins persona, I thought he came across as a British stereotype, or maybe a whole bunch of them squished together, rather than as a real person.

  17. I also had the feeling that this book takes place in another era. This led me to consider the basic plot: an older, very correct, English butler has been left by the grandfather in his will to his son’s family, though he asserts that he is not an indentured servant (p. 10). He proceeds to correct American English, food habits, and its perspective on the American Revolution (advising Carter to “think of the advantages if you had remained a colony and never taken up rebellion” and been more “gentlemanly” p. 117). He relentlessly teaches the art of the gentleman (don’t let your sister walk the dog) among many other edicts and recommends only British authors (Dickens, Trollope, Conan Doyle). He moves Carter’s grief stricken mother towards a job at the local church, and works a deal to get the Indian father of a cricket player a job at the school, ending a cycle of joblessness and depression. In both cases, we feel that they couldn’t have achieved these goals on their own — only the intercession of the British butler could bring stability. He speaks of being a gentleman as the ultimate goal in life with the only other choice being “a barbarian,” (p. 211) a term also used to describe those who wear pajamas to play cricket (p.173) .

    Well written, feeling and humorous, this book conveys how stability can be restored for a young boy whose world has fallen apart.The reader feels secure as well because order is brought about through adopting (stereotypical) British habits and mindset, and we feel as cozy as Carter does after tea and cream.

    I wonder, though, if this recipe is one that works in today’s world where people are encountering many who also have a rigid set of rules about proper English, dressing, and living, so that anyone who deviates from any specific cultural practice could (according to the butler) be termed a “barbarian”. This term, joined by the butler with “gentleman,” evokes the language and justification for colonialism, just as cricket was the sport taught to make others more “English” and “gentlemanly”. Though there are many positives in this book, ultimately the not so subtle messages, though intended to be humorous, do seem to bring back another, not so wonderful time period.

  18. Brooke Shirts says:

    I just finished reading this book this morning and loved it so very much. Can’t wait to pass it on to other readers. However:

    I agree with Katrina in that it isn’t clear what in time period this book is set. Carter talks about watching “reruns” and getting up early on Saturday mornings to watch “Ace Robotroid.” Saturday morning cartoons went off the air years ago, and I don’t think most children today even know what a “rerun” is. There also isn’t a cell phone in sight, which, while refreshing, also lent to the lack of clarity regarding the book’s setting. Carter uses e-mail, and with the multiple references to his father’s Afghanistan tours, we could easily peg this book as taking place in the mid 2000s.

    One final quibble: I grew up in a military family myself, and found it VERY odd that Carter never mentions his family moving every 2-3 years as most Army families do (by the time I was in 6th grade, my family had been transferred 6 times).

    If his father was stationed long-term in Germany, why didn’t his family relocate with him? (Being stationed in Germany is very, very different from being deployed into active duty.) While I suppose some spouses with children do choose to stay stateside when the servicemember is stationed overseas, it’s rare. Most families are pretty jazzed to get reassigned to Germany. Of course, all of this might simply be symptoms of a failing marriage that weren’t showing up on Carter’s radar.

  19. This reminded me of Sharon Creech’s Love that Dog in the way Carter deals with his problems and a cross of the two films Mrs. Doubtfire and The Kingsman in the caretaker entering a family’s life trying to make a gentleman out of someone. The story really grabbed me (even though I don’t like books involving sports) and I was emotionally invested by the end. Yet, despite how much I enjoyed the novel, there was too much of a feel that this all happened in a bubble that had no specific time or place, like a Disney Channel TV movie of the 90’s. It’s so interesting discussing books this way since I’ll continue recommending this to customers but I can’t see it getting a Newbery.

  20. Melisa Bailey says:

    I agree with the above comments, that was a suprise novel with a lot more depth than I had first assumed. I loved the humor and how Carter matured during the story. The loss of his brother and father was well written and I liked how the loss was slowly introduced to the reader. I think the emotional lives of boys are unrepresented but this book was realistic and well done.

  21. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    We’re now closing comments on our HM discussions, as balloting by the HM Committee is underway. Look for new discussions in the January 23rd post as members re-discuss contending titles.