I originally read Save Me a Seat when it was published in 2016. I rated it 5 stars then. When I saw it was a Lovelace nominee this year, I was curious to see if I would feel the same after rereading it. Save Me a Seat was just as fantastic the second time as the first!
The story is told in two alternating narratives by the two main characters: Ravi and Joe. Both are beginning 5th Grade at Albert Einstein Elementary in New Jersey. Joe has been at the school since 1st Grade and Ravi’s family has just arrived in the United States a few months before the start of the school year. Individually, each face some personal challenges: Joe has APD (Auditory Processing Disorder), which makes it difficult for him to concentrate when there is a lot of extraneous noise. Because he struggles to focus, he is often perceived as less intelligent–which is simply not the case. Ravi is trying to find a way to fit in in his new school in a culture that sometimes differs greatly from his own. When others express difficulty understanding him, due to his accented English, they also presume that it is his second language and that he is less intelligent than he actually is.
In addition to these foundational challenges, Joe’s mother–much to his chagrin–has taken a job as a Lunchroom Monitor at Albert Einstein Elementary and the class bully, Dillon Samreen (a consistent threat in Joe’s life already), now adds Ravi to his target list. Although the reader knows from the beginning that Ravi and Joe share many feelings and situations in common, they do not. The alternating narrative style serves to illustrate how easily we make assumptions about who a person is before we know anything about him.
Although the entire story happens within the first week of school, the plot does not feel rushed or manipulated at all. Both Ravi and Joe have voices that are beautifully and achingly genuine. Both have a strong character arcs (journeys) from the beginning to the end of the book. Both boys come to a better understanding of who each of them are and how that new insight might affect each one’s behavior going forward.
The premise is brilliant in its ordinariness–the emotions and the situations of both boys are common in middle grade years especially. I also like that, although the adults in the story are secondary characters, they are not simply props for the plot or the setting. The scenes in which Ravi is finally heard by his classroom teacher, and the one in which Joe finally feels heard by his parents are powerful because the adults listened and altered their perspectives and behavior as a result. Realizing that using their own voices in a sincere and honest way gives both Joe and Ravi a new sense of empowerment in their own lives.
Save Me a Seat is extraordinarily well written. The plot, as well as the main and secondary characters, are fully rendered, allowing the reader to identify with them quickly and easily. The pace of the story moves effortlessly through the dual narration. Although some scenes are repeated in both Ravi’s and Joe’s narration, it is always with the purpose of showing (in a very concrete way) how one situation can be perceived completely differently by two individuals when there is no communication. I love tightly plotted stories that move the story due to their own impetus (and that of its characters); every character, plot point and word in Save Me a Seat is a necessary piece of the story. I LOVED Save Me a Seat both times I read it. I highly recommend it as an independent read–and absolutely as a read-aloud in the classroom. It would make a great first read-aloud in a 4th or 5th Grade classroom and a perfect fit for a 3rd Grade classroom later in the school year.