All of the Above, by Shelley Pearsall, illustrations by Javaka Steptoe
If you follow Washington Boulevard past the smoky good smells of Willy Q’s Barbecue, past the Style R Us hair salon, where they do nails like nobody’s business, past the eye-popping red doors of the Sanctuary Baptist Church, you’ll finally come to a dead end.
That’s where our school sits. Right at the dead end of Washington Boulevard. We know there’s a lot of people out there who think our school is a dead end. And that all the kids inside it are dead ends, too. They drive past our school, roll up their windows, and lock their doors. Let’s get out of this bad neighborhood, they say. Fast.
But they’ve got it all wrong. Because inside our crumbling, peeling-paint, broken-window school, we are gonna build something big. Something that will make all of them sit up and take notice…Something that hasn’t been built in the history of the world. By anybody. Just you wait and see.
Washington Middle School stands in an inner city neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio, and there Mr. Collins teaches seventh grade math. Or, he tries to. Actually, it is clear to Mr. Collins that almost none of his students is even listening to him, and finally, he’s had about enough. With an uncharacteristic outburst of frustration that surprises and amuses his class, Mr. Collins begins asking the troubled and trouble-making students what it would take for them to enjoy being there.
A contest, one boy answers. And that’s how it all begins.
Within days, an unlikely combination of students, led by an ill-prepared Mr. Collins, forms a sort of math club with one goal: to build the world’s largest tetrahedron and make it into the Guinness Book of World Records.
Nothing about this operation goes smoothly. Conflicts between students, bad attitudes, opposition from parents, seem to doom it from the start. When Mr. Collins appoints James — Mr. Uncooperative himself — as club president, it seems like the final blow. But surprising changes begin to take place. Good ideas and increased energy slowly grow and unusual friendships form as the massive tetrahedron itself takes shape.
Then, wham! Disaster strikes. And their shattered dream threatens to drain all hope in both students and teacher.
Shelley Pearsall’s novel is fast-paced and highly-engaging, with a number of well-drawn characters we quickly come to care about. These students do not live tidy or predictable lives. While two of them contend with death, gangs, neglect, and foster care, two others have households with a strong, caring parent. The novel is written from many points of view, and though the voices aren’t dramatically different, the variety of life stories creates a nice balance of wit, poignancy, suspense, and substance. Without being simplistic, the book concludes on a note of hope.
A running thread about Willy Q’s Barbeque provides the author with opportunities to include recipes for some delicious barbecue sauces, cornbread and chocolate cake — a fun addition. There’s also a tetrahedron pattern included so you can build your own monster structure, and an Author’s Note describing the real contests in various schools that inspired her to write the book.
Based on a true incident in Cleveland, I found this to be a compelling read, probably best for ages 10-14, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Pearsall’s books.
Here’s an Amazon link: All of the Above