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Family, Loss, Middle Grade Readers, Realistic Fiction, Sports

PAY ATTENTION, CARTER JONES by Gary D. Schmidt

I was truly looking forward to reading Gary D Schmidt’s Pay Attention, Carter Jones and I did enjoy parts of it, but as a whole it was a disappointment for me. (Having loved The Wednesdays Wars and Okay For Now, maybe my expectations were too high?)

Pay Attention, Carter Jones begins with a bang:  it’s Carter’s first day of middle school, one little sister is searching desperately for a missing sock, while another calls her a ‘baby,’ his youngest sister is screeching while his mother tries to fix her hair, the car won’t start, there is no milk for breakfast and then the sock is finally discovered where the dog, Ned, threw up on it. In the midst of this chaos the doorbell rings and Carter opens it to a portly man in a suit and a bowler hat. It turns out that Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick (whom Carter calls the Butler) used to serve his paternal grandfather in Europe as a ‘gentleman’s gentleman.’ With his most recent employer’s death a little over a week ago, Bowles-Fitzpatrick was left an endowment to remain in the employ of the son’s family…leading him to Carter’s doorstep.

The premise is simple and predictable: Carter’s family has experienced a tragic loss, his father has been deployed to Germany and Carter–as the oldest child–is trying his best to move forward and help his mother and sisters do the same. The fortuitous arrival of Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick creates the predictable Mary Poppins- or Nanny McPhee-esque plotline: unhappy child/family who is struggling to come to terms with the harsh realities of life discovers the inherent qualities within himself that allow him to find a fresh, new beginning/outlook on what is before him, thanks to the love and guidance of the newly arrived adult, who has a different take on the whole situation.

Indeed, Carter’s relationship with the Butler is sweet–often funny–and heartwarming in all the ways that make this type of plot paradigm succeed. The disconnect, however, happens as a result of the Butler using the game of cricket as the main metaphor through which he chooses to communicate his advice and explanations to Carter. The rules of the sport cricket are used extensively to emphasize important moments in Carter’s life and his journey through grief and anger. I–like a lot of United States citizens–do not have a very good knowledge of cricket either technically or in practice. Sports metaphors are often used in literature to parallel life challenges for a character but this only works when the reader has at least a basic knowledge of the sport in question from which to make the associations the author is weaving into the plot. In general I, personally, do not like a  lot of sports-themed stories, although I understand their effectiveness in metaphor. They generally don’t hold my interest and this could be one reason why I had trouble staying connected to Carter when his personal journey was interrupted so often by lengthy descriptions of cricket play and rules.

I loved the characters of both Carter and Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick, but found it hard to stay connected to them and their relationship when it was constantly being interrupted for cricket references or instruction. Pay Attention, Carter Jones jumps back and forth in tone from light and funny to deep and personal. The throughline for the story is supposed to be the cricket analogy.  Pay Attention, Carter Jones is a good independent read for a middle grade reader who enjoys sports-themed fiction and/or who has some knowledge of the game of cricket, but I think it will be a hard sell to a reader who does not have these predispositions.

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