Monday, November 16, 2015

Review of The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall

The Seventh Most Important Thing  by Shelley Pearsall.  September 8, 2015.  Knopf Books for Young Readers.  288 pages.  Ages 10 & up.

It is 1963 and thirteen-year old Arthur Owens is having a hard time dealing with his father's recent death, and is keeping his feelings bottled up inside him.  One day he comes home from school to find that his mother has gotten rid of everything that belonged to his father, and his anger begins to build.  When he sees the "Junk Man" wearing his father's motorcycle cap, he snaps and throws a brick at the man's head.

Fortunately, he only hits the Junk Man in the shoulder, but it does cause him to fall and break his arm, which eventually lands Arthur in court, facing the judge.  But, instead of being sent to juvie as expected, The Junk Man (whose real name is James Hampton) intercedes and asks the judge to sentence Arthur to community service working for him.  The judge agrees, and tells Arthur his is giving him a chance for redemption. 

So every Saturday Arthur has to search through people's garbage along the streets, looking for the 7 items Mr. Hampton has asked for:  wood, foil, coffee cans, cardboard, mirrors, lightbulbs, and glass bottles.  Over time, he gets to know Mr. Hampton and begins to appreciate the project he is working on, and finds support in his new friend Squeak, and his tough-talking, no-nonsense parole officer, Wanda Billie.

But, just when it seems like things are going well, it all falls apart.  Will Arthur find his ultimate redemption?

My Thoughts
This book was inspired by real-life enigmatic folk artist James Hampton and his sculpture he called "The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly" (see below).  While the man and the sculpture were real, Pearsall's story about Arthur Owens is entirely fiction.

The Seventh Most Important Thing is a bittersweet coming-of-age story about grief, consequences, friendship, art, and redemption.  While this may sound like a lot of ground to cover, it all comes together quite well throughout the course of the story. This is a character-driven story and a thought-provoking one.  It shows how grief can manifest as anger, but that actions prompted by that anger still have consequences.  It also will lead the reader to think about how we judge people based on outward appearances, or seeing only one small part of who they are, and that many times there is much more to them than we know, if we would only take the time to find out.  The reader will also be prompted to consider what is "art", and who decides?

I think this book would make a great book for a class read and discussion.  For leisure reading, those who typically like fast-paced, action-packed stories probably would not care to read this book, but I would recommend it for those who like more thoughtful, character-driven stories.  While it is technically historical fiction, I probably wouldn't market it as such, since the same story could have taken place in virtually any timeline.  Readers with a particular interest in stories of people getting in trouble and paying the consequences, but learning from it and moving forward would also like this story.

Other Books By This Author
Shelley Pearsall has written several other middle grade/YA coming-of-age stories that often deal with prejudices and misperceptions, some with historical settings and some with modern settings, including:  Trouble Don't Last, Crooked River, All Of The Above, All Shook Up, and Jump Into The Sky. 

Photograph of the real Throne of the Third Heaven sculpture by
 the real James Hampton, now housed in the Smithsonian.

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