My Life as a Book, about the summer of a 12 year old self-described “reluctant reader,” is written in a way obviously intended to appeal to reluctant readers. The Comic Sans font resembles hand printing and the book has large margins—this prevents the “wall of text” effect and also leaves ample room for the stick figure sketches illustrating the meanings of a few words on each page. This is a tactic used by our hero, Derek, as he illustrates his way through his summer reading. The story is told in first person present tense, which makes it feel very conversational.
Both my kids (ages 9 and 11) loved this book. It looks like it might appeal to even younger kids, but the story opens with Derek finding an article about a teenage girl who drowned 10 years ago—the plot is intended to appeal to older readers. Late elementary and middle school kids will find it easy to identify with Derek and he’s quite open about his struggles with school. He’s very visual, gravitating toward comic books and preferring drawing to writing. In that way, he reminds me of my own son.
It’s very much a story of growth on many fronts, but Derek doesn’t undergo any miraculous transformations—this is good, because otherwise I think it would be hard for kids to continue to identify with him. He was supposed to read three books over the summer—he only reads one, but he truly understands it and does well on his report. This is victory enough. He also learns to look past his assumptions and to see the world and the people around him as more complex than they first seemed.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
My kids thought Derek was really funny. As a parent, I was often appalled by his behavior—he’s not an easy child, and he obviously knows how to use his misbehavior to get what he wants. He locks himself in the car, he takes a monkey out of his mother’s veterinary practice, and he regularly climbs on the roof and chucks stuff at the satellite dish. Because we see the story from Derek’s point of view, the connection between his actions and getting what he wants seem even more obvious. The way he dismisses “MomMad,” it seems to have little to no effect on him; he just tunes it out. Toward the end of the book, he gains some empathy for his parents and starts to behave himself a bit because he’s obviously aware of how his actions affect his parents. I guess that makes it a little better…
It’s full of interesting strategies for reluctant readers—sketching vocabulary words, visualizing scenes from the book, animating sketches to create scenes from the book, etc. It turns out that the illustrator is the author’s 15 year old son, and he’s been sketching his vocabulary words since elementary school. That made me wonder how many of these strategies came from personal experience. Certainly the book provides an open and honest portrayal of a kid struggling through school. As a parent, it made me wonder if jumping on “teachable moments” creates a similar frustration in my own kids. Often, the efforts of Derek’s parents and teachers had the opposite of the intended effect.
The central plot deals with Derek wanting to learn about the drowning death of a girl who was babysitting him at the time. There’s nothing graphic, but the grief and questions that result from an untimely death are explored from several angles and run throughout the book. Also, the class hedgehog dies.
The drowned girl’s mother has made up a story about her daughter’s death, which helps her grieve. When Derek’s mother learns the truth, she feels betrayed. This lie has made life more difficult for several people involved. However, in the end she understands why the other woman fabricated the story, and Derek sees it as a noble sacrifice that his mom chooses not to confront her with the truth. The point seems to be that in some ways stories are more beneficial than facts. Throughout the book, Derek tries to learn what happened 10 years ago. Several times he regrets that he’s seeking the truth and wonders if he should have let his mom keep it secret. In the end, it seems to be for the best that he dug this up and they found out the truth—knowing the whole story seems to bring his mom some measure of peace. Still, the book doesn’t take a clear stance on honesty. There’s an implication that lies have their place.
Teachers: Derek doesn’t like his teacher because she keeps trying to teach him (this is something he naturally rebels against), but over the summer he sees her playing softball in the park wearing a Red Hot Chili Peppers tank top. She’s happy to see him reading Calvin & Hobbes, even though it isn’t one of his summer reading books, and she lets his dog lick her face. All of these things make him begin to see her in a more nuanced light.
Girls: Of course Carly—the only girl we really meet—is the brilliant, know-it-all, brown nosing teacher’s pet. However, over the course of the book, Derek actually becomes friends with her and sees her in a different way. She’s set up an obstacle course in her basement that Derek thinks is really cool, and by the end of the book he gets his friend Matt to stop teasing Carly and to hang out with her as a friend.
Babysitters: Not one of the babysitters does her job well. One, in fact, loses her life due to poor choices while babysitting. They chat with friends, text, watch TV, and chase boys instead of interacting with Derek.
Pedro the monkey is a companion to Michael, a 17 year old boy who has cerebral palsy. Derek goes to visit Pedro and befriends Michael as well. They play basketball with a lowered hoop, and Michael beats Derek soundly. Later Michael plays in a basketball tournament. He also teaches Derek how to animate his sketches on the computer. In Derek’s eyes, he’s just another kid, except he has a wheelchair and a monkey—Derek really envies him the monkey.
Derek and his parents are the central characters to the story. He obviously loves his parents even as he actively tunes them out. He knows exactly how to push all their buttons. Even through Derek’s eyes, it’s clear that his parents are trying hard to do what’s best for him, although their choices often don’t turn out exactly as they’d hope. But overall they all get along well. They have fun on their family vacation to visit Derek’s maternal grandmother. It’s clear that his mom still gets along well with her own mother. More than once I wondered how much my own kids identified with this view of family from a kid’s perspective.
This book seems appropriate for kids age 9 and up, and particularly good for reluctant readers age 11 to maybe 13 or 14.
Some books span generations, but I don’t think this is one of them. I felt like I was trespassing when I read this book and I couldn’t turn off my Mom Brain—I wanted to tell Derek’s parents that if they kept rewarding him for that behavior, it would only get worse. His behavior is awful enough that I was shocked there were so few repercussions, but not so awful that it’s clearly exaggeration. That said, my kids both loved this book, and the only lasting repercussions I’ve seen in them is that my son now bugs me to get a pet monkey. Unlike Derek’s mom, I won’t be giving in.
My son started drawing vocabulary words—that’s a lasting repercussion I can live with.