Author: Ali Benjamin
Genres: Middle Grade
Pub. date: Apr. 16, 2019 (read, Apr. 2019)
Happy pub day to The Next Great Paulie Fink! Thanks to Hachette Book Group Canada who provided me with a free advance copy in exchange for an honest review.
I loved Ali Benjamin’s debut novel, The Thing About Jellyfish, and she hasn’t published anything new in several years, so I was thrilled when I saw she was publishing a second novel! Both of Benjamin’s books are middle grade and I’ll admit, when I read the plot synopsis for Paulie Fink, it didn’t appeal to me quite as much as her first book because it sounded more juvenille. But don’t let that deter you from reading this one because I ended up really liking it!
The Next Great Paulie Fink is about 7th grader, Caitlyn Breen, who is a new student at Mitchell School. Caitlyn’s mom got a new job and moved them both to rural Vermont from New York, a decision that was not very popular with Caitlyn. Her new school seems totally backwards from her old school and doesn’t seem to follow any of the social “rules” she learned in New York. The kids in her new class all seem eccentric to Caitlyn and they are caught up in the disappearance of one of their former classmates, Paulie Fink.
Paulie was the class clown and beloved by his classmates. But he doesn’t return for 7th grade and no one knows what happened to him. He leaves a void behind that the kids want to fill with a new Paulie, so they decide to have a reality show competition to find the Next Great Paulie Fink. Caitlyn’s struggles to get on board with the competition since she never knew Paulie, but her classmates convince her to judge the competition and suddenly she’s thrust into a totally new world that scares her, but challenges her.
Granted, it’s been a few years since I read The Thing about Jellyfish, but this book had quite a different tone from that book. It’s a lot funnier and it has a large cast of characters to carry the story. It’s overwhelming at first trying to keep track of Caitlyn’s classmates, but eventually they all start to develop personalities of their own, and while Caitlyn is always our central character, I really loved some of her classmates as well.
Like I said, I initially wondered if I would glean much from this book as an adult reader, or if it really was tailored for kids. But I ended up really liking it and even though the themes were younger, I still thought the author did a great job at making this a well rounded story that could be enjoyed at any age. I particularly liked how she approached bullying in this book. Moving to a new school and finding it absent of the social structure that was in her last school, Caitlyn starts reflecting on some of the interactions she had with her former classmates and how some of her actions may have been hurtful. Because her class is so small (a dozen students), and because they are so rural, her classmates are all very supportive of one another and Caitlyn initially struggles with that. She protected herself in her old school by growing a hard shell and disconnecting her emotions from those around her, and in her new school, she struggles to let herself be vulnerable and that hard shell actually creates a barrier with her new classmates.
I also really liked the author’s exploration of legends and kleos (glory). Paulie was a legend at Mitchell and in their search for the next Paulie, the students learn about kleos and what makes someone memorable or a legend. The catch is, kleos can make us forget things too. When we glorify someone, it’s easy to forget the things that made them human or the things that annoyed you about them. We later discover that Paulie was really just as human as the rest of the students, but because of the reputation he developed at Mitchell, the students started over-hyping who he was and to an extent, lost sight of the real Paulie and failed to notice the unique things that they have to offer in their quest to be more like Paulie.
I liked a lot of the secondary characters, but (no surprise I’m sure) Fiona was definitely my favourite. Fiona wears a power suit to school every single day because she wants to one day be a powerful woman. She’s not great at school and struggles to pay attention in class. But she is buoyed by her belief that “well-behaved women seldom make history”. All of the students at Mitchell had so much spunk and I loved watching a group of kids be so great at supporting one another. Was it realistic? I’m not really sure. But I think that was kind of the point. Mitchell school was doing something right – it didn’t seem like a place should exist like this, but somehow it did. When you find something special like that, it’s worth protecting, even if it challenges your worldview.
Mostly though, this book was just a lot of fun. There’s lots to make you laugh and lots to make you think. I think Caitlyn’s classmates are right in that sweet spot where they’re still children, but are about to become teenagers. Caitlyn was pushed to mature a little earlier growing up in New York, which is why she has hardened herself against the world. But these students are still idealistic and not yet jaded about the world. Overall, I loved the balance of humour and life lessons about growing up.