A few weeks before I was to appear at a school visit last month, the librarian asked if I would stay after for a pizza party. Invited would be the twelve 4th and 5th graders who had read every book on the Mark Twain list. I love pizza. I love parties. I love readers. And I, myself, had read all those books, too.
I had three favorites, one of which, I predicted, would be an underdog in the voting, for the sole reason that the general conflict is (sadly) something kids see every day.
When I first opened this particular book, I didn’t expect to love it as much as I did, but you can’t always judge a book by its cover. And you can’t judge people by theirs. Or by your initial impressions of them. The latter is a big takeaway from SAVE ME A SEAT by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan.
For Ravi, it’s the his first day of fifth grade in a new country. Back in India, he was a cricket star, super popular, super smart. He swaggers in to his new school full of hope and optimism and immediately spots Dillon, a child of Indian immigrants with swoopy bangs, a big smile, and an even bigger following. Ravi know, with absolute certainty, that he and Dillon will become the best of friends.
Dillon is exactly the guy who Joe Sylvester tries to avoid. Joe is large for his age, has APD (a noise-filtering condition), and is an easy target. Ravi wants nothing to do with Joe, who’s so unpopular, he eats lunch in the cafeteria by himself. Besides, they have nothing in common; then again, initial impressions are often wrong, especially when there’s a smiling, swoopy-haired bully involved.
As a seasoned reader, you can only imagine that with such different perspectives and outlooks, Ravi and Joe are headed on the same crash course for disaster. I’m a cringe-r. And this book is riddled with the best kind of cringe-worthy parts, the type that feels like these kiddos will only get stronger through their embarrassment and humiliation.
Save Me a Seat is told from alternating points of view, over the course of the five-day school week, each day’s section named for the featured cafeteria lunch. As for me, I didn’t need lunch the day I read this book. I swallowed it in one huge, immensely satisfying gulp.
Weeks later, at the pizza party, after I asked those 12 Mark Twain readers to save me a slice, I also asked which book they planned to vote for. No one talked about Ravi and Joe. The three titles mentioned most; really terrific books as well: Unbound (Ann E. Burg), Maxie’s Secrets (Lynn Plourde), and The Seventh Wish (Kate Messner). But when I asked the kiddos about Save Me a Seat, there was an overwhelming, “Oh, yeah!” It may not win the Mark Twain Award, but it’s a true winner!
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