“Will win over teens.” —School Library Journal (starred review)
A teen boy’s world gets turned upside-down when a zoo of exotic animals takes over his small town in this wickedly funny, heartbreakingly honest novel that’s perfect for fans of David Arnold.
In Makersville, Indiana, people know all about Ronney—he’s from that mixed-race family with the dad who tried to kill himself, the pill-popping mom, and the genius kid sister. If having a family like that wasn’t bad enough, the local eccentric at the edge of town decided one night to open up all the cages of his exotic zoo—lions, cheetahs, tigers—and then shoot himself dead. Go figure. Even more proof that you can’t trust adults to do the right thing.
Overnight, news crews, gun control supporters, and gun rights advocates descend on Makersville, bringing around-the-clock news coverage, rallies, and anti-rallies with them. With his parents checked out, Ronney is left tending to his sister’s mounting fears of roaming lions, stopping his best friend from going on a suburban safari, and shaking loose a lonely boy who follows Ronney wherever he goes. Can Ronney figure out a way to hold it together as all his worlds fall apart?
From acclaimed author Crystal Chan comes an incisive tale of love, loyalty, and the great leaps we take to protect the people and places we love most.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
All That I Can Fix
IT WAS A THURSDAY WHEN the squirrels fell from the trees. I knew I shouldn’t have stayed at George’s after school, but she wore a really tight shirt that day, and besides, she was freaking out over four questions she knew she got wrong on her AP chemistry test and wanted to cry on my shoulder—how could I say no? Still, by the time the windstorm started, I was almost regretting it; shingles were ripping off the roofs and flying down the street. I braced myself against the wind as those squirrels fell, one after another, claws gripping at the sky, squirrels falling like acorns.
Earlier on that same Thursday, Mr. Jenkins, the crazy guy on the edge of town, the guy who owned an exotic zoo filled with tigers, panthers, hyenas, and elephants and the like but who never fed them very well (they all had ribs poking out like the black keys on a piano)—he decided to go and shoot himself dead, but not before opening up all the cages and letting his animals loose. Of course, in that windstorm, the animals—having been caged up for years and years—freaked out and ran. So there we were, Makersville, Indiana, the sudden focus of TV reporters and animal rights groups and gun rights advocates, thrown in the spotlight when we hadn’t hardly existed just a couple hours before. Goes to show what a tiger can do.
So everyone was running around with their cameras and cell phones, then running around some more and telling people not to run around and to stay in their homes. Then a couple reporters got on TV and started talking in Really Excited Voices because two giraffes had been mauled and gnawed on by the Bengal tiger. I mean, really, people? Makes sense to me: The tiger had been starving, windstorm or no windstorm, and it’s not like it was going to saunter through the fast-food drive-through and order the double-cheeseburger meal deal. And this hubbub was before folks learned that the python was nowhere to be found.
Maybe it should have bothered me more that these animals were on the loose and hungry, but in light of what had happened six months before that, I wasn’t bothered at all. It’s funny how relative life is: If you have a boring life where nothing much happens and suddenly there’s some big cat out there, I suppose that would be a good reason to get upset. But if your dad tried to kill himself but messed up and just hurt himself really bad, well, some cat somewhere out there isn’t all that awful. I mean, the cat could be anywhere. Your dad lives in your house.
I was straining into the wind along Oakwood Road—with the nice network of roads for all the new houses in the new part of the neighborhood so only those who live there could ever, ever find their way out—when another squirrel dropped right beside me, making a grotesque cawing sound as it fell. I jumped, scared, then glanced around to see if anyone had noticed.
That was when I saw the boy. He was small, about Mina’s size, and he was maybe ten feet behind me, heading in the same direction. I was surprised he wasn’t blown away, he was so small; if there were chain-link fences, I’d have encouraged him to hang on to them and crawl his way home.
There was no one else out on the street. Who would be out in a windstorm with squirrels falling through the sky and lions on the loose? Not that anyone here actually uses the sidewalks for walking—they’re just big empty spaces that you have to shovel in the winter or your neighbors get pissed at you and start talking behind your back. They’re perfect, these sidewalks, flawless, except everyone uses cars.
I continued to walk home, squinty-eyed into the wind, my face at an angle to the sheer, and I could swear that the kid was following me. He had on a hoodie and was using his forearm to protect his face from the wind.
I turned around and staggered a step toward him, the wind blasted my back so hard. “Where are you going?” I shouted to the kid. “You’re crazy for being out here.”
He said something, but the wind carried his words away.
“What’d you say?” I shouted.
“Give them back,” he yelled.
“What?” I shouted.
“Give them back,” he repeated.
“What the hell are you talking about?” I said.
“They’re not yours,” he yelled, leaning into the wind.
I stared at him like he was an idiot, and he turned his head away. With his hoodie he almost hid it, but I got a split-second look at his face. Pale. Mousy. Intense. And the way he looked at me, I knew—I knew—this kid needed something bad.
Maybe if I were a better guy I’d have talked to him, found out what was wrong. But at that point a jigsawed shingle fluttered down the road, branches were down everywhere, and Dad was probably pissed he didn’t know where I was, which meant Mom wasn’t much better. That’s really what I was thinking about, not some little kid falsely accusing me of shit. So I turned around and kept walking.
But he kept right up with me; he made his little legs go twice as fast, and he stayed a couple feet behind. I kept catching him out of the corner of my eye, thinking he’d turn off at Allerton Drive or maybe when we came to the cul-de-sac where that new family moved in last week. But no. He stuck by me like a bad shadow.
I spun around, and he nearly bumped into me. “Go away!” I said, and I still needed to shout because the wind nearly dissolved my words. “I didn’t take anything, and I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
At that point he must have seen that I was getting pissed, and he dropped back about twenty feet. But freaking-A, he still followed me.
I thought again about talking to him. Clearly, he was confused. But what could he be talking about? The thing is, figuring that stuff out takes time; while I was more than happy to let George cry in my arms all day if she’d like, I didn’t know this kid, and I’d be damned to let him cry on my shoulder about whatever problems he had. Besides, there were squirrels falling from the trees and a couple cats on the loose.
My house was coming up. In a strange way it was a serious relief with this hoodie kid trailing behind me. He still had that really intense look on his face: the look of pure, absolute need. I didn’t know what to do, and I think a part of me stalled a little, like a funky engine, because when I got inside the house and turned to close the door, there he was—just like I knew he’d be—standing outside the door, looking at me like of course I was going to invite him in.
“What do you want?” I said, trying not to show that this was creeping the shit out of me.
“I want your jeans,” he said.
“You want what?” I asked.
“Your jeans,” he said.
“Fuck no,” I said. “Now go away.”
He stood there.
There was nothing more natural than to close that door in his face. So I did. I locked it for good measure. You never know what people will do, even when they’re young. Especially when they’re young.
Reading Group Guide
A Reading Group Guide to
All That I Can Fix
By Crystal Chan
About the Book
Ronney can fix just about anything, except when it comes to his family: his father’s clinical depression, his mother’s anxiety, and his kid sister Mina’s panic attacks. As if that weren’t enough stress for a fifteen-year-old, Ronney discovers that ten-year-old Sam wants him to help find his runaway brother. To make matters worse, a local eccentric released his menagerie of wild animals, and now lions, tigers, pythons, and other creatures are on the loose in Ronney’s small Indiana town. Against this chaos, he feels he needs to be the man of the house and hold it together for everyone else. But how can Ronney take on the responsibilities of an adult when he is only a kid? And how can he cope with the anger he feels toward the people in his life who have let him down? Perhaps by helping make Sam’s life a little better, he can avoid having his own life crumble to pieces.
1. Consider the book’s title, All That I Can Fix. Discuss the things that Ronney can fix and those that he can’t. Why does he believe so many of the issues or obstacles that surround him are his to fix? How can his willingness and ability to take on household projects be seen as both a positive and a negative? How does the physical work of home repair help Ronney to channel his anger? After his father slams the potted plant to the ground, why does Ronney pick up the broken shards and put them into the trash before leaving for Jello’s house?
2. Anger plays a prominent role in the narrative. Discuss how this emotion reveals itself through the characters’ thoughts and actions. Reread the section where Ronney describes “the exact moment that my sadness and anxiety about Dad turned to anger.” Why was his father’s choice to drop a soda can on the freshly mowed lawn a tipping point for Ronney? Why does Ronney decide in that moment to stop trusting his father, and how does closing off his connection to his father breed anger? Ronney thinks, “Isn’t that weird? That you can be so angry at someone you want to be with so much?” How does Ronney’s compassion and concern for Sam help him to process his anger toward his dad?
3. What is a defense mechanism? How does Ronney use dark humor and sarcasm to protect himself in his relationships with his parents, George, and others? How else does Ronney create defense mechanisms to help him cope with his problems?
4. Reread the section where Ronney discovers that Jello and George are in a romantic relationship. Discuss Ronney’s reaction and feelings of betrayal. Do you think he had a right to feel betrayed? Can you name other ways Ronney feels betrayed by people in his life? In the following chapter, Ronney reflects on “one of the nice things about working on a house.” Discuss what he means when he thinks, “A house does not betray you.” To Ronney, how have his parents betrayed him?
5. Discuss Ronney’s fixation with Thursdays. How does his Thursday routine demonstrate a need for control? Why do you think the medallion is so important to him? Why might a person in Ronney’s situation decide to rely on superstitious, magical thinking?
6. Although George accuses Ronney of being cold, Ronney has an enormous capacity for empathy. Discuss and cite examples from the text where Ronney displays empathy, even in moments when he would rather turn a blind eye. Why does Ronney think Mom’s decision not to report the cheetah sighting is “the coolest thing Mom had ever done”? How does Ronney’s growing compassion for Sam over the course of the story help him begin to feel empathy toward his father?
7. After Ronney and Sam discover that there is no message on the back of the Lennon poster, Ronney thinks, “It’s amazing how long you can hold up the sky.” What might Ronney be thinking of when he refers to “the sky”? Why do you think Ronney decides to hang the poster in his room?
8. At the start of chapter eleven, Ronney reveals that he belongs “to the crowd that watches: the kind that doesn’t really belong to a crowd at all, because once you belong to a crowd, you stop watching.” Do you agree or disagree with this idea? Jello and George both feel that Ronney “keeps it real.” Why is authenticity so important to Ronney? Discuss his observation: “I mean, if you’re going to live and walk on this planet, you’d better as hell be real about it.” What does it mean to you to “be real”?
9. Both of Ronney’s parents suffer from mental illnesses: his father has clinical depression and his mother takes medication for anxiety. Why is it so difficult for Ronney to understand that his father’s depression is the reason for his inability to parent? Instead of compassion for his parents, Ronney feels abandoned and betrayed. Mina, his sister, also suffers from the post-traumatic effects of their father’s suicide attempt. Discuss how mental illness impacts this family. As his father begins to improve, why is Ronney unwilling to see that he is beginning to get better? What advice would you have for Ronney to help him better understand and cope with his situation?
10. Guns are ever present in All That I Can Fix. From the first chapter when readers learn that Mr. Jenkins shot himself after releasing a menagerie of wild animals into the community, to the story’s climatic shooting of the tiger, guns are constantly referenced, seen, and heard. What statement do you think the author is trying to make regarding the issues of gun safety and gun violence in America? Discuss scenes from the book in which guns and gun use are present. What are your thoughts on the community’s response to the animal crisis? Use examples from the text to discuss issues on both sides of the gun control debate.
11. Ronney is a deeply thoughtful and questioning person. Why do you think he was so attached to the question-mark jeans? Discuss Ronney’s reflection that “Nick was a freaking genius for painting those jeans like that. Because that’s what life is: One big-ass question mark. Or rather, a tangled mess of them.” When Ronney finds Sam in the woods, he discovers that Sam has brought the jeans with him. Discuss Ronney’s realization that “It didn’t matter that Sam couldn’t answer any of the questions that Nick had left him with. The questions didn’t matter as much as the fact that Sam was holding those questions carefully, almost reverently.”
12. Discuss George’s need to be perfect. Do you think high school students in today’s society are held to unrealistic standards? How so? Think about the pressures in your own life and in the lives of your friends. Do you think some of these pressures and expectations are healthy? Are some unhealthy? What would you change if you could?
13. Major themes in the text include need and longing, fear, anger, responsibility and blame, loss and abandonment, empathy, forgiveness and healing, and memory. Identify and discuss scenes from the story that delve into these themes. What have Ronney and other characters learned from these feelings and the situations that trigger or reflect them? How often do you experience these feelings in your own life? Have you reacted similarly to or differently than Ronney? Can you find any additional themes in the text?
14. Ronney often says “it’s the little things” that matter in life. Discuss scenes from the book in which Ronney or other characters demonstrate this idea. Why is saying “I’m here for you” so important to Ronney?
15. While fishing together when Ronney was young, his father teaches him about sacrifice when he tells him to “‘remember this worm is going to give its life for that fish.’” Identify and discuss evidence of sacrifice throughout the story. Do you see it take on different forms and have a variety of results? Why might it sometimes be difficult to see or appreciate that someone is making a sacrifice?
16. Ronney asks himself, “What do you do when somebody is asking you to give them a second chance? And how much will you risk for your hope that maybe this time it’ll be different?” What would you do if you were in Ronney’s shoes? Name other instances in the book where people give or receive second chances. What are the reactions from both parties? Why might giving or asking for a second chance require a certain degree of courage?
17. Throughout the story, Ronney recalls memories of his father, which include talking while working on the car and taking a father-son fishing trip. How do these memories of better times with his father provide him with the connection he so desperately longs for? How are Ronney’s and Sam’s situations similar, and how do they mine their memories as a coping mechanism?
18. As Ronney’s father’s depression begins to improve, he makes small attempts to integrate with his family. Identify and discuss some of these moments in the text. Why does Ronney continue to criticize him for his efforts? After his father tells Ronney that he is feeling better, Ronney responds with a snarky comment. His father says, “‘Have you ever thought about being a decent human being? Or is this the best you got?’” Do you think this was an appropriate thing for his father to say? Why does the question rattle Ronney? How does the confrontation between Ronney and his father in chapter seventeen and the following tiger scene put Ronney’s own behavior into perspective?
19. Why does “something inside” Ronney freeze after his father invites him to go bowling? Why does he feel “the worst thing . . . would be to say yes”? Why do you think allowing himself to hope that his father is getting better is such a dangerous and scary prospect for Ronney? How were the times that Ronney and Sam spent together “like a balm”? How can hope be a balm for the heart and the soul?
1. Instant Karma. Introduce or refamiliarize yourself with the life and music of John Lennon. With a partner, listen to and study the lyrics of some of Lennon’s most powerful compositions, such as “Nowhere Man,” “In My Life,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “A Day in the Life,” “Revolution,” “Instant Karma,” “Whatever Gets You thru the Night,” and “Imagine.” Create cover artwork for one song and present your work to the class, explaining your choices.
2. The United States of Mental Illness. Ronney’s family is profoundly affected by mental illness. Your teacher will work in conjunction with the health teacher/s at your school to present a series of lessons on mental illness, including its causes, symptoms, and treatments. Then you’ll select a specific mental illness to research in more detail. Write a conversation between two people—one suffering from a mental illness and the other a close family member or friend—that conveys what this person might be going through and how the loved one can help support. Incorporate details from your research. Role-play the conversation with a partner using different tones of voice, attitudes, or gestures. Does this change the impact or message of the conversation? Why do you think it’s sometimes difficult to be honest with one another, or easy to be misunderstood?
3. Twenty-One Ways. After George’s failure at the architecture competition, she decides to change her “21 Steps to Be an Architect” list to “TWENTY-ONE WAYS TO KICK ASS AT LIFE, NO MATTER WHAT.” Now it’s your turn to brainstorm and generate your own 21WAYS2KAAL NMW list. If you’d like, share your list with the class.
4. The Virtuous, Upright Teenager. Ronney explains that his mother thinks Jello is a “‘virtuous, upright teenager’” because he “‘doesn’t do drugs or anything like that.’” Discuss with your classmates what virtuous and upright mean to you. Then write an essay called “The Virtuous, Upright Teenager” that presents the qualities and character traits of this type of person.
5. World War of Rightness. Ronney describes the media circus playing out in response to the wild animal crisis as a “World War of Rightness.” With your classmates, identify a list of polarizing issues in the country today, such as gun control, abortion, climate change, and immigration. Prepare for and participate in a series of debates where you will constructively argue and discuss one of these sensitive issues with a group of classmates.
Guide written by Colleen Carroll, literacy specialist, education consultant, and author of the twelve-volume series, How Artists See, and the four-volume How Artists See, Jr. (Abbeville Press). Contact Colleen at www.colleencarroll.us.
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.