Being Youngest


Being Youngest is an exquisite new novel about Henry and Gretchen, two farm kids growing up in rural Iowa. Filled with details of farm life, obnoxious older siblings, perplexing parents, a tornado, and a strange and at times frightening elderly couple, this is a beautifully written, thought-provoking - and funny - meditation on what it means to be the youngest child.

Henry and his friend Gretchen spend a wonderful summer filled with details of farm life, visits to ...

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Being Youngest is an exquisite new novel about Henry and Gretchen, two farm kids growing up in rural Iowa. Filled with details of farm life, obnoxious older siblings, perplexing parents, a tornado, and a strange and at times frightening elderly couple, this is a beautifully written, thought-provoking - and funny - meditation on what it means to be the youngest child.

Henry and his friend Gretchen spend a wonderful summer filled with details of farm life, visits to the eccentric elderly couple down the road, and struggles with obnoxious older siblings.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Lyrical writing and an original premise spin this novel of friendship to a funky rural stratosphere all its own. Henry and Gretchen are two country kids in Iowa. Both are youngest in their families, misunderstood and as lonely as it is possible to be. When they find each other, they believe it's like a miracle: "They were telling each other something, a little signal flashing between them." One day, they decide to ride their bikes down the driveway of an old couple whom everyone suspects is crazy. There they find adventure and escape from their dreary home livesbut are the old woman and man really as sweet as they seem? Treading the edge of fantasy, the novel a hybrid with elements of Hansel and Gretel and The Wizard of Oz swirls with fat lemon meringue pies, geese in the attic and six-legged lambs, a pair of false teeth and a really big tornado. But it never strays from its overall theme of the amazing grace of finding a friend who understands you. Heynen One Room Schoolhouse has a consistent and clever ear for dialogue as in this typical non sequitur exchange between Henry and Gretchen: "This old lady, she's my grandma, she lives in the basement and is supposed to cook for us and stuff. She's mean. I don't like her much. Talk about the pits, Granny's the pits." "I never knew nobody with a dead mother before." This polished yet quirky novel may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it's a challenging and ultimately satisfying read. Ages 10-up. Sept.
Children's Literature
Gretchen and Henry, the youngest in their respective families, believe they are picked on unjustly. They become friends and start visiting the strange old couple that live in the vicinity of their farms. The couple share false teeth to eat, keep geese in an upstairs room, have a lamb with siX legs, and often talk in riddles. The two kids start taking care of the lamb and bringing the old couple food. They try to think of ways to eliminate the eXtra two legs, including praying, tying them so they eventually fall off, and cutting them off. When they accidentally get locked in with the geese, they become afraid of the couple and believe they are in danger, but the old man and woman are just eccentric. Children may see the humor in the story, but the situations are corny and the slang and incorrect English the two kids use is contrived. Religion and prayer are frequently mentioned. 2000 (orig. 1997), HarperTrophy, $15.95 and $4.95. Ages 9 to 12. Reviewer: Janet L. Rose <%ISBN%> 0805054863
VOYA - Joyce Sparrow
The title of this novel will immediately attract those millions of middle school children who are stuck with the curious problem of being the youngest member of the family. As Gretchen explains, "First the grown-ups made her feel bad about being little and then they stopped her when she tried to grow up. There was nothing fair about it. Nothing." Gretchen and Henry are two preadolescents who are growing up one summer on neighboring farms in Iowa. Gretchen has just moved from North Dakota with her silent father, nervous mother, and boy-crazy sister; Henry lives with is God-fearing father, overweight grandmother, and arrogant older brothers. The two children meet at the local swimming hole where Gretchen impresses Henry with her belly flop. They become fast friends who share long bike rides and a tree house, and eventually befriend a nameless, mysterious, older couple whose idiosyncrasies make most neighbors fear them. With ongoing pressures from parents and siblings, Henry and Gretchen often console each other by lamenting that "big people are the problem," directing their simple frustrations against their immediate families. But when a tornado strikes the barn owned by the older couple, Henry, Gretchen, their families, and the older couple are all brought together. The charm of this story is in its characterization of the nameless older couple who share one pair of false teeth and keep geese in the upstairs of their house. Henry and Gretchen's sympathy for each other and their situations will hit home with anyone who has grown up as the youngest child. The religious element in the story is strong but not the focus of this enjoyable novel. VOYA Codes: 3Q 3P M (Readable without serious defects, Will appeal with pushing, Middle School-defined as grades 6 to 8).
School Library Journal
Gr 6-8--Henry is tired of being picked on by his grandmother and his two older brothers. Gretchen, who recently moved from North Dakota to Iowa, is also the youngest in her family, having to endure her older sister's obnoxious behavior and favoritism by her parents. When the two youngsters meet, they decide to visit the old, and supposedly crazy, couple who live up the road. Soon they are stopping by regularly. They aren't bothered by eccentricities like the couple's sharing a set of false teeth, keeping their "children" a flock of geese in their house, or their six-legged lamb. When Gretchen and Henry's families find out, they forbid the visits. Then, during a tornado, the children seek shelter in the couple's barn. Their families know where to find them, and all help the elderly pair clean up from the storm. Characterizations of Henry and Gretchen are well drawn, making it seem natural that two misfit kids would find friendship in one another. The dialogue doesn't ring true, however: "We don't want nobody findin this stuff exceptin us" is not the way Iowans speak, thereby reinforcing a "hick" farmer stereotype. The time the story takes place is never made clear; only the mention of outhouses would indicate an earlier one hopes era. Humorous and touching scenes of farm life do make the story enjoyable. If readers want another book similar to, but not as strong as, Paulsen's Harris and Me Harcourt, 1993, this one may fit the bill.--Bonnie L. Raasch, C. B. Vernon Middle School, Marion, IA
Chicago Tribune
"Jim Heynen knows the secret passage that lets him into the minds of young country boys, understands both their wisdom and their bewilderment as they encounter the realities of a distinctive way of life -- isolated, harshly beautiful -- that is vanishing from the American scene."
Kirkus Reviews
Heynen (for adults, The One-Room Schoolhouse, 1993, etc.) chronicles the growth and friendship of two appealing youngsters in rural Iowa—and a sweet, simple farm life it's not. Neighbors Henry and Gretchen are drawn to each other when they meet at the local lake, for they have plenty in common: They are the youngest in their households, constantly admonished by their elders and tortured by their siblings. It sounds harsh, yet Heynen portrays even the most heartbreaking situations deftly. Henry and Gretchen find comfort in each other and in secret trips to visit with an elderly couple whose eccentricities border on—but never cross into—the horrifying. The writing is funny, with a folksy dialogue through which the voices of the characters emerge, and it's all slightly off-kilter, with the skewed realism of The Beans of Egypt, Maine, but for a younger audience: The elderly folk have one set of false teeth and take turns eating; Henry and Gretchen tend to a six-legged lamb, and try their best to make her "normal." A perceptive novel about companionship that both pinches the funnybone and plucks a few heartstrings without missing a beat.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780380732043
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/28/2000
  • Pages: 272
  • Age range: 8 - 12 Years
  • Product dimensions: 5.18 (w) x 7.70 (h) x 0.74 (d)

Meet the Author

Jim Heynen is the author of One-Room Schoolhouse, which Booklist called "magical . . . because [these stories] give us access to childhood's open-eyed consciousness and embrace of life," and The Man Who Kept Cigars in His Hat. A teacher at St. Olaf College, he lives with his wife in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

A Taste of the Worst

Henry lived on a farmwith his father, two older brothers, and his grandmother. Being the youngest person in this arrangement meant that you always got the short end of the stick. The dirty end. It wasn't just that he had to wear hand-me-down clothes, or that his older brothers pushed him around as if he were some kind of unbreakable toy, or that he was the only kid in the county whose mother had died when he was four. Maybe a boy could handle all of that if it weren't for Granny. Granny tipped the scales in more ways than one. Not only was she the meanest and laziest old lady in the world, but she was a real fatso. A waddler, if you want to put it nice. She ate so much and she did so little that she was like a big loaf of bread dough that stands out too long and keeps rising and pretty soon it's bulging up over the edge of the mixing bowl. Everything Granny sat in was like a mixing bowl, what with her bulging up over the edge of whatever she decided to stuff herself into.

People said Henry was the quiet one in the family, and usually he was-unless something so terrible was done to him that he had no choice but to speak up. Henry had figured out that if you are youngest and if you have any wits about you at all, you can stay out of a lot of trouble by doing more thinking than talking. The way he saw it, the only safe place to get things out in the open was inside your own head with your mouth closed, just thinking. If you kept your mouth shut, you could ask any question you wanted to. Why, for instance, didn't his father find some sort of housekeeper who was about the same age his mother had been? Or whydidn't his father send him off to live with his aunt? Either of those choices would have been better than Granny. But, oh no, to make matters as bad as they could be on this earth, his father had decided that Granny would live in the house, in the basement by night and upstairs by day, until the boys grew up.

Until the boys grew up. Some growing anybody could do with the likes of Granny around. When she did manage to get up and walk, she looked like she was carrying two ten-gallon water balloons on her backside. And she wasn't much better from the front. Her checks were so big and heavy they looked like a couple of wrinkled pancakes that could fall off her face if she shook her head fast. But she was strong when she wanted to be, and if she was really angry her thick arms and big hands could swing out quick as a cow's tail and swat you a good one. At least Henry could outrun her, if it ever came to that.

It hadn't come to that yet but the summer was just getting started. Henry had looked around inside his head for a good summer plan, and he had come up with one--he'd stay outside all day, stay clear of ole Granny all the time except when it was time to eat. But today not even that plan was working out. He'd gone outside to play all right, but then he'd gotten into this little game with his older brothers, throwing corncobs at one another. It was a good enough game with no sides, just everybody for himself. A hit on the leg and you have to cripple, a hit on the arm and you can't use that arm, a hit in the back and you have to crawl, a hit in the head and you're dead-out of the game.

Things hadn't gone well. As usual his older brothers picked on him. They wanted Henry to get hurt so he'd quit playing and leave them alone. That's what the corncob game was really all about. So Henry had gotten hurt, and now he was moping along across the stinking farmyard, kicking dirt. His left elbow oozed blood where a corncob had clipped him, and his knees hurt because his brothers pushed him down when he wouldn't stay dead like they said he was supposed to.

Times like this he really had no choice but to go to the house and take his chances with Granny, what with his dad out in the back of the field cultivating corn.

He swung open the screen door and yelled, "What's to eat?"

Just as loud Granny yelled back, "Don't let the flies in!"

He pulled the screen door shut quickly.

"And don't slam the door!"

That's the way Granny was. She'd get you coming or going. Henry walked into the kitchen, and there she was, plopped down and filling up his dad's swivel chair by the kitchen window.

"I'm hungry," he said, keeping his range in case she was in one of her cranky morning moods.

"Milk in the refrigerator," she said. She looked him over. "And what have you done to yourself this time?"

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