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Review of the Day: The Luck of the Buttons by Anne Ylvisaker

The Luck of the Buttons
By Anne Ylvisaker
Candlewick Press
ISBN: 978-0-7636-5066-7
Ages 9-12
On shelves now.

There are kids out there that like historical fiction. I know that there are. I’ve met them. They come into my library and curl their lips in disgust at the covers with the shiny dragons and sparkly motes of dust swirling and whirling. The thing is, they don’t know the term “historical fiction” and even if you told them that was the kind of book they preferred they’d look at you like you were attempting to make them eat something green and leafy. All they know is that they like stories about real kids and if those kids happen to live in the past, so be it. Why slap a label on what they love? Because if I don’t make it clear that this is a genre that gets read we’re going to find less and less books of that ilk appearing on our library and bookstore shelves. That would be a real pity too since books like The Luck of the Buttons by Anne Ylvisaker are some of the best in the biz. A svelte little novel that’s chock full of plum, pluck, and vinegar, Ylvisaker gives us a heroine you can believe in but never pity. And the readability? Through the roof, man. Through the roof.

If you’re growing up in Goodhue, Iowa then you probably know the Button family. More to the point, you probably know that they’re just about the most luckless group of nobodies ever to place a foot on God’s green earth. This has been true for generations and there’s no reason to think that Tugs Button would be any different. Yet this year, she seems to be. First thing, Tugs wins the three-footed race with fancy Aggie Millhouse as her partner (Aggie’s another story right there). Next, she wins the essay content for a piece of writing she though she’d dumped in the trash. And then third, she wins a raffle for a real, honest-to-goodness, Brownie camera. A gorgeous camera that takes great photographs. If the luck of Tugs is turning around, she’d definitely going to need it. There’s a fast-talking newspaper man in town taking donations for a new paper, and Tugs is certain the fellow’s up to no good. The result is a story of a girl who’s been sleepwalking through her own life until, one day, she gets lucky.

There are two books out this year where smooth-talking shysters try to talk some money out of the local rubes. In The Trouble with May Amelia by Jennifer L. Holm, the shyster gets away scot-free. In Luck of the Buttons . . . well, I shouldn’t give anything away. Suffice to say, Tugs is onto this Harold Hill wannabe, pretty much from the get-go. And part of what I respect about Ylvisaker’s writing is that Tugs has her reasons. She also has her handicaps. There is, first and foremost, the fact that she’s a girl, and second there’s the fact that her family lies on one of the lower rungs of their small town’s status. Who’s going to believe the suspicions of somebody that inherently (through no fault of her own) untrustworthy?

In fact, it’s the small town mentality here that I really loved. It’s easy to condemn small towns for their single-mindedness and stubborn memories. It’s also easy to hold small towns up as bastions of truth, justice, and the American way. Far more difficult is to hit that balance between the two. Ylvisaker doesn’t romanticize her characters in this town and she doesn’t villainize them either. This is a location full of flawed folks, our heroine included. The Buttons themselves seem to be just as responsible for their reputations as their bad luck. As the book says at one point, “Buttons considered victory, even for one’s affiliated party in national politics, showing off.” So our heroine has antagonists not just from outside her family but inside it as well. It’s tough to be the heroine of your own novel when even your own family members are advising you to keep from getting “a swell head”.

Really, it’s Ylvisaker’s writing that keeps everything moving at a rapid clip. It’s catchy with a beat you can dance to, but there’s also an essential friendliness beneath it all. You like Tugs right from the start, even if she does talk too fast when she’s nervous and wipe the snotty back of her hand on her overalls. She’s the kind of kid you identify with. The one who pays attention to things that should not be and has to escape the weight of her family’s history.

Basically if you’re looking for pleasure reading that’s also historical, I can’t think of a better book to name than The Luck of the Buttons. Fun and funny, light but with a real emotional core, Ylvisaker’s a consistently strong writer that’s slowly building a following. If she keeps churning out books like this one, she’s bound to become better known for sure. Hand this one over to the kid that wants a good story with humor and spice and a family that’s practically cursed itself. It’ll stick in your brain long after you’ve read it, this one, and you’ll be glad that it’s in there.
On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

First Sentence: “Tugs Button darted past Zip’s Hardware, stumbled over the lunch specials sign at Al and Irene’s Luncheonette, and pushed through the door of Ward’s Ben Franklin as if the devil himself were chasing her.”

Notes on the Cover: See, that wasn’t so hard, was it? Publishers these days have been doing everything in their power to obscure the fact that their books are historical novels when, in truth, there are ways to show that a book takes place in the past and yet still looks fun. Now, granted, I’m saying this about this book in spite of the fact that the cover is a bit brown. And brown, as we all know, equals death when it comes to child-interest. This isn’t an entirely brown cover, though. More tawny. Add in the fabulous girl on the cover (I thank whoever’s grandmother that must be) and you’ve got a jacket that advertising its contents and heroine with aplomb.

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. I adored this book. I quoted half the first chapter in my post b/c I found the language so delightful and could so easily picture Tugs. I’ve been pushing it as a read aloud, especially in the sixth grade b/c they do a unit on the Great Depression. Loved your review and thanks for reminding me about the audio.


  2. Thanks for another swell review. I actually have a section in my classroom library labeled historical fiction and I honestly have to force some kids to choose books from other sections. I know what you mean!

  3. I loved this one and featured it for July 4th weekend: A bit of mystery, a little history, and several memorable characters. It also helps that the book itself isn’t enormously long – but has lots of story packed into it.

  4. You just described my 3rd-grader, who says she mostly likes books about “real kids.” Preferably kids who lived a while ago. And so she’s read the first 4 Betsy Tacy books (numerous times), all of Elizabeth Enright, etc. This looks wonderful–I’ll bet we’ll be adding this to the canon…

  5. Love love love this book.

  6. Mother Lydia says

    Hrms.. I don’t know if I’d have liked fantasy when I was a little kid or not. most of the books I remember devouring were about real kids.