Paulsen (Mudshark) writes another touching story about human kindness and humanity. Reclusive and insecure, Finn lives with his father, his dog and his friend Matthew, whose parents are divorcing. Being 14 isn't easy for Finn (“I feel like an alien dropped onto a strange planet and that I always have to be on the lookout for clues and cues on how to act and what to say,” he muses), and his plan for summer is to talk to “fewer than a dozen people” and read as many books as possible. However, his intentions are thwarted when 24-year-old Johanna shows up to house-sit for his neighbors. She is lighthearted, imaginative, optimistic and has breast cancer. While Finn is usually overwhelmed by human contact, Johanna's sensitivity is disarming, and she hires him to plant a garden for her as a distraction from her illness. The plot is straightforward, but Paulsen's thoughtful characters are compelling and their interactions realistic. This emotional, coming-of-age journey about taking responsibility for one's own happiness and making personal connections will not disappoint. Ages 12–up. (July)
VOYA - Kevin Beach
This brief novel explores one eventful summer in the life of a meek and geeky teen, Finn, who would rather have his nose in a book than interact with family or friends. Then in moves a force of nature next door named Johanna, a bald but ebullient twentysomething cancer patient. She immediately turns Finn's life upside down by hiring him to plant a garden, coercing him to help her raise funds for a cancer fun run, and making a date for him with a girl he has been too shy to approach. Thrown into this mix are Finn's only real friend, Matthew, his single-parent father, and his unusually human dog, Dylan, who keeps showing up with handwritten notes for Finn in his mouth. Consequently Finn discovers a developing talent for connecting with others as he breaks out of his seclusion and soon the lives of his father and even his granddad are touched by his efforts. There is an undercurrent of lighthearted comedy in Finn's efforts with the garden and his fundraising speeches. Given the brevity of the book and its inclination to be a book for "boys," it could be recommended to reluctant readers. The author certainly has a long history of success in reaching the teen audience, however, in this book, the dialogue and story line seem a little too pleasant and the lives of the teens lack any real angst or conflict outside the horrors of Johanna's chemo side effects. Reviewer: Kevin Beach
Children's Literature - Karen Leggett
Gary Paulsen has written another treasure, but the challenge this time is not weather or wildlife but befriending a young woman with cancer. Joanna has moved in next door, just as Finn was planning a summer with as little contact as possible with any other human beings. Joanna not only changes the summer but the rest of Finn's life in a compelling story of beauty, hope, and sadness. There is beauty in the relationships Joanna nurtures so easily, hope in people's capacity for growth and change, and sadness in the cancer that clouds every chapter. Young people who feel socially awkward will identify immediately with Finn: "When other people talk, I'm so worried that what I'm going to say is going to come out wrong that I can't focus on what they're saying and then I lose track of what we were talking about in the first place." With Joanna's compassionate nudging, Finn finds ways to meet his adolescent world head on. Reviewer: Karen Leggett
School Library Journal
Gr 5–9—Fourteen-year-old Finn is terrified of meeting new people, and conversation is painful. His true friend, Matthew, is talkative, overly confident, and sometimes a thorn in his side. The boy is content with books and Dylan, his canine companion. He's determined that his summer vacation will not be marred by the intrusion of people, and thus, the discomfort they cause him. Then he meets his pretty new neighbor, 24-year-old Johanna, who shares her joy of life with Finn and Matthew and employs Finn to help her create gardens in his sorrowful-looking backyard. Johanna's enthusiasm for research, compost, fertilizer, and all things garden break down Finn's barriers. When she tells the boys that she is a breast-cancer survivor, their initial trepidation shifts to friendship. As she trains for a triathlon to raise money for cancer awareness, Finn and Matthew join her team. Right before the race, more adverse reactions to chemotherapy thwart her run, and the two boys take up the torch. Johanna's spirit and optimism infuse Finn with courage and love, and he finds his voice. Paulsen's fans may miss his trademarks: the notorious exploits of boys, the page-turning wilderness adventures, or the sled dogs that often take center stage. Yet this candid and tender tale, told with his signature humor, is a salute to the bravest of the brave.—Alison Follos, North Country School, Lake Placid, NY
Read an Excerpt
Sometimes having company is not all it's cracked up to be.
I was sitting on the front steps of my house with Matthew and Dylan. Matthew was listening to his ear buds, eyes closed, half-humming, half-singing the good parts of the song like he always does, and Dylan was asleep on the ground, snoring and twitching. Matthew's into his music and Dylan's a dog so I didn't pay much attention to either of them. I was trying to read.
Matthew's the only true friend I've got.
He's not my best friend. That's Carl, because we've always got a lot of the same classes and spend the most time together in school. Matthew's not even my oldest friend. That's Jamie, because I've known her since we went to nursery school together. He's definitely not my most fun friend--that would have to be Christopher, who goes to a school for the gifted and always has some crazy story to tell about the supersmart people he knows.
Matthew lives right across the street and is always over at my house. That summer, he was actually living with us, because his parents were in the middle of a divorce. Their house was for sale and they'd each recently moved into nearby apartments. But Matthew had said he wasn't going to learn how to do the shared custody thing on his summer vacation. Then he'd said he'd just stay with us until everything got settled. I was impressed that Matthew called the shots that way, but not surprised that his folks and my dad agreed; Matthew has a way of always making sense so people go along with him.
But that's not what makes him my true friend. It's because he's the only person I know who doesn't make me feel like he's drifted off in his head when I'm talking. Anyone who listens to everything you have to say, even the bad stuff and the boring things that don't interest them, is a true friend. Matthew's always been the only person who's easy for me to talk to. He's a lot like Dylan when you think about it.
Matthew and I aren't anything alike. I know, for instance, that it's got to be easier to be Matthew than it is to be me. There's something so . . . easy about the way he does everything. He gets better grades than me, even though he hardly ever studies. He's on about a million teams at school, and whatever he does in football, baseball, basketball, tennis or track, he looks confident in a way that I never do.
He has friends in every group at school: the brainy people, who, even in middle school, are starting to worry about the "com app" (that's the universal college application form, but I only know that because I Googled the word after I heard them talking about it so much); the jocks, who carpool to their orthopedic doctor appointments together and brag about torn cartilage and bad sprains; the theater and band and orchestra members, who call themselves the arty geeks and then laugh, like it's some big joke on everyone else; and, of course, the losers.
Matthew would never call me a loser, not to my face and not behind my back, either, but we both know that I don't fit in and that I'm just biding my time in middle school, waiting for high school and then college, after which I hope I can get a job where I'll be able to work by myself.
It's not that I don't like people, but they make me uncomfortable. I feel like an alien dropped onto a strange planet and that I always have to be on the lookout for clues and cues on how to act and what to say. It's exhausting to always feel like you don't belong anywhere and then worry that you're going to say the wrong thing all the time.
Real people seem so . . . mysterious and, I don't know, high-maintenance to me. People in books, though, I like them just fine. I read a lot, partly because when I was little and my dad couldn't afford sitters, he'd drag me to the library for his study groups. He was in night school and he's been there ever since. He'd sit me at a table near him and his classmates and give me a pile of books, a bag of pretzels and some juice boxes.
"I wish I had a dollar for every hour I've spent in the library," he always says. I have to agree--we'd probably never have to worry about money again.
So now I don't feel normal unless I've got a book in my hands, and I feel the most normal when I'm lost in a story and can ignore the complicated situations around me that never seem to work out as neatly as they do in books.
So, on that day, Matthew and Dylan and I were sitting in front of my house. It was a week after school let out for the summer.
A completely bald woman drove up, parked in front of the house next door and jumped out of her car.
I knew she'd moved in a couple of weeks ago to house-sit for our neighbors, professors on sabbatical. I'd seen her a few times from my kitchen window, but I hadn't spoken to her. I hadn't noticed she was bald, either, and that kind of detail didn't seem like one I'd miss.
She was probably in her early twenties. She was wearing faded jeans that looked way too big for her and purple cowboy boots. She carried a leather backpack and had one of those bumpy fisherman sweaters draped over her shoulders even though it was hot.
She saw me, waved and headed in our direction.
Dylan sat up as she got closer and looked at her with that teeth-baring border collie grin that scares people who don't know that dogs can smile.
From the Hardcover edition.