Book Review: The Best Man by Richard Peck

Book Review: The Best Man by Richard Peck

I had never read any books by Richard Peck before, but several friends had raved about his ability to speak to kids. They were right and I am going to have to integrate more of his books onto my TBR pile.

Archer Magill narrates his own journey to understanding what kind of person he wants to grow up to become. He tells you that the years between first and sixth grade are book-ended by two different weddings so we should call his story "A Tale of Two Weddings."

Throughout the story Archer is an honest and lovable kid who just wants to do the right thing. He has a few key male role models who guide him.

His dad doesn't want to grow up and spends his time refurbishing vintage cars. His grandpa is an architect who built many of the houses and buildings in Archer's town, including the neighborhood school. His Uncle Paul works for the Chicago Cubs, drives fancy cars, and lives a posh lifestyle. And in his fifth grade year, Archer meets a new teacher Mr. McLeod, a National Guardsman.

The conversations that Archer has with these men are touching and inspiring and a bit humorous as well.

“‘So are we going to talk it over with him? Knock some sense into him?’

’No, we’re guys,’ Dad said. ‘We’ll talk about the Cubs, and cars.’

’That’ll help?’

’You work with what you’ve got.’”

Archer's sidekick is the daughter of his mom's best friend, Lynnette who sometimes prefers Lynn. Their friendship was solidified prior to the first wedding when Archer, as a ring bearer, mistakenly sat in mud and Lynnette took the blame.

Lynnette is one of those kids who is wise beyond her years. She recognizes that she has an advanced vocabulary and she's smart, but she knows she's not gifted. She helps the delightfully unaware Archer out on more than one occasion. Lynnette eavesdrops on adult conversations and learns helpful tidbits that she passes on to Archer.

Archer's expanded knowledge, thanks to Lynnette, makes him self-reflective about how well-informed kids are, which is hilarious coming from the kid who doesn't notice that his uncle is gay, doesn't realize what his mom does for a living, and doesn't read the newspaper.

“Kids know most things before their grown-ups know they know. We’re older than we look. It’s complicated. We’re older than we act.”

Lynnette mostly spends time with Archer and his male friends. When she tries to befriend Natalie, a spoiled know-it-all, it ends in disaster. She tries being friends with other girls as well, but she just doesn't have anything in common with them. Eventually Lynnette, who goes by Lynn in sixth grade, decides that girls are not worth the trouble. She would rather just be friends with the people who understand her.

“‘We may be lunching together permanently. I’m having second thoughts about peer-grouping with girls. I mean, have you seen them? And why are they all named either Sienna or Peyton? And what about the piercing on the girls from Central Elementary? What are they thinking?’

’Nothing?’ I said.

’Exactly,’ said Lynn.

She was never going to do a lot of peer-grouping with girls. It wasn’t her.”

While some people may cringe at Peck's criticism of young girls, I'm applauding. The whole princess vapid routine does nothing for me. And I remember having a difficult time maintaining friendships with girls when I was younger. For Peck to validate how some girls do feel ostracized by their peer group just makes me happy that his story includes a girl who would rather hang out with the boys than fawn over them.

Another subtle criticism from Peck centers around the demands of the public education system. The fourth grade teacher leaves the profession because her blood pressure has gotten out of hand. The woman who taught art and music is downsized. And the kids have three different teachers in fifth grade. One of their teachers is Lynnette's mom.

Peck's irreverence for standardized testing truly made me smile. He pokes fun of the school for squirreling away the special pencils for the test. Sadly, I've been the testing coordinator who sharpens, stocks, and squirrels away pencils in anticipation of The Test. That job is terrible and I'm glad I don't have it any more.

During testing, the kids are not allowed outside for lunch or recess. They must eat in the multi-purpose room. Archer's theory is that the adults may have thought the kids would make a run for it. Peck's disdain for testing shines through in various scenes.

Peck also openly acknowledges the existence of bullying in schools. Even better, he recognizes that preventing bullying is a community effort.

“‘The anti-bullying contract is just to keep parents calm.’

’Including the parents of bullies,’ Lynn said.”

Too often people blame schools for allowing bullying to occur. I've worked in schools where parents have driven their child to another child's home because the parents want their kid to beat the snot out of the other kid.

How is a school supposed to contend with a community that encourages fighting as the solution?

“Mom sighed. ‘Archer, spell this out for me as simply as you can. Why can’t the school protect its own students with its own resources?’

’That’s easy. Bullies have parents too, and schools don’t have diplomatic immunity.’”

I loved this book! And the best part is that there are gay characters who are integrated into the story. No tokens here.

Uncle Paul exists as the cool uncle who gives Archer a Cubs jersey for his birthday. He helps Archer figure out how to deal with a few bullies. The other gay character is easy for an adult to spot, but I'm not certain that a middle school reader would. Again, this character exists in his own role and his sexuality is secondary to the story.

If you're looking to recommend a book to a middle reader, The Best Man is a quickly paced, humorous, and inspiring story about growing up in the Internet age with a loving family and solid friendships.

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