Thirteen-year-old Mississippi “Mibs” Beaumont, two of her siblings, and two friends stow away on a Bible-delivery bus so Mibs can use a newly discovered secret talent—her savvy—to save her father, who lies critically injured in a hospital ninety miles away. The bus has to make a few stops en route, though, and Mibs, her fellow stowaways, and even the driver, find friendship, love, and understanding along the way.
Let me say it up front: Savvy is a fantastic book. Don’t miss it. It’s set in Bible-belt Nebraska and Kansas and loosely inspired by The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The characters are fantastic; they make the story.
Kid-o-meter ratings (1 = lowest or least, 5 = highest or most)
1. This book made me laugh out loud: 2. I didn’t laugh out loud, but there’s plenty of low-key humor in this wonderfully enjoyable book.
2. This book has good action: 4. The action in Savvy doesn’t consist of epic battles, but the splash-battle at the pool, the disagreements among friends, the fight at a diner, and several storms caused by one of the main characters will be more than enough to keep you reading long into the night.
3. This book is suspenseful: 5. You’ll be so busy wondering what will happen in the next scene that once in a while you might forget to worry about what will happen to the main character, her friends, and her family—especially her dad—in the long run. Then you’ll remember what’s at stake and start reading faster to get to the end. Once you’re finished with the book, you’ll read it all over again because it’s just so good.
4. The ending does not disappoint: 5. I won’t tell you more because I don’t want to give anything away.
5. I cared a lot about these characters: 5. I have never read a fantasy book with characters I cared about more than the ones in this book. If you are fan of Meg and Charles Wallace from A Wrinkle in Time or Claudia and Jamie Kinkaid From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, read this book. I think you’ll like Mibs, her brother Fish, and the other main characters as much as you liked Meg, Charles, Claudia, and Jamie.
1. How old is the main character? At the beginning of the book, she’s about to turn 13.
2. Is there a group of friends I can imagine I’m part of? Yes, a great group of friends.
3. Is this a series or just one book? This is a stand-alone book, but there’s another book, Scumble, about one of Mibs’ cousins. The events in that Scumble take place 9 years after the ones in Savvy.
4. Does it get off to a good start? Yes. The book doesn’t have big action on the first page, but it has what writers call a hook—something that makes you want to keep reading to learn more. The hook in Savvy is first-class. If you’re not super-curious to keep reading after page one, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.
5. Is there at least one nice grownup? Yes. There are many nice grownups, from Mibs’ mom, dad, and grandfather to Lester, a down-on-his luck Bible salesman, and Lill, a waitress who falls in love with Lester. There are also a few grownups you might call half-nice and two really unpleasant ones. There’s a sad homeless man, too.
6. Does is get mushy? Is there L-O-V-E? There is love, and when my son was ten I think he would have described it as a little mushy. Mibs gets her first kiss and Lester gives Lill a big kiss (the kids are embarrassed and look the other way). Sixteen-year-old Roberta has a crush on one of Mibs’ brothers and manages to touch his hand near the end of the book. None of these kisses or crushes is romance novel-y, though. In other words, they’re not the kind you’d find in a love story for teenagers or grownups. Parents, I don’t think any of these romantic moments are inappropriate for kids.
1. What’s the major source of suspense? The one that pulls the reader through from beginning to end is the fate of Mibs’ father. The day before Mibs’ 13th birthday—just a few pages into the book—Mibs’ father is in a serious car accident (offstage) and is taken to the intensive care unit of a Salina, Kansas, hospital, ninety miles away from the family home in Hebron, Nebraska.
All members of Mibs’ family have a special inherited ability, a savvy, which becomes apparent on their 13th birthday. An important source of suspense early in the book is what Mibs’ special power will be. Even after it appears, the nature of Mibs’ savvy isn’t clear-cut, so there’s more suspense while Mibs and the readers figure out what it actually is.
Your middle-grade reader will also wonder what on earth will happen to Mibs and the other main characters who stow away in a Bible-delivery bus so Mibs can go to Salina to save her father.
There are many other sources of suspense, too; for instance: will the kids, who are at loggerheads with each other in the beginning, learn to get along? Will Mibs and her 14-year-old brother Fish ever tell the other kids about their savvies? How will the other kids react if and when Mibs and Fish tell? Can the kids trick Lester and Lill into thinking they’ve called their parents? Should they try? Will Lill lose her job at the diner? Will Lester ever learn to sell Bibles? Will Lester and Lill get in trouble for helping the kids? Can Mibs help her father? If so, how?
2. Which classic fantasy elements does this book contain? Inherited special powers. Fish can cause storms, Grandpa can create new land, Mibs’ mom can do things perfectly on the first try, Mibs’ deceased grandmother could capture songs in glass jars, and so on.
3. What’s the book’s take on tolerance and empathy? Tolerance is not an overt theme, but the book is full of empathetic characters, especially Mibs, who is really a lovely, likable kid. Her friend and sort-of boyfriend-to-be, Will Junior, is no bad guy either. For instance, Mibs, backed up by Will, helps a homeless man, or at least tries. Will Junior sticks by Mibs through thick and thin, as does her older brother Fish. Samson, Mibs’ little brother, seems to be able to calm people with his touch, and he’s generous in giving this help.
4. Is there profanity or violence? There’s no profanity, but there is some mild violence. At one point, Fish gets mad and punches Will Junior, who remains calm and doesn’t punch back. Fish has a hard time controlling his savvy (causing storms), and wreaks havoc a couple of times in the book. There’s a cruel restaurant manager, the Great and Powerful Ozzie, who fires Lill in front of a group of people, brandishing a pie knife and saying really mean things about her. Near the end of the book, the kids hold down a bad guy—well, a really nasty woman—so Mibs can use her savvy to figure out where the woman has hidden the missing Samson.
5. How about mature themes or dark creatures? There are no dark creatures in this book. The savvies are described as genetic traits rather than supernatural powers, so there is no dark or light magic, either.
The two themes in the book that to my mind are “grown-up,” romantic love and homelessness, were handled in a way I think was fine for middle-grade readers. Lester and Lill fall in love and kiss, but the kiss is described in a way appropriate to a middle-grade book.
The meeting between Mibs, Will Junior, and a homeless, sleeping alcoholic outside a diner is moving. The writer takes pains to explain that it’s a potentially dangerous situation, so you needn’t worry that your kids will approach sleeping alcoholics without caution after reading this book. The writer handles the scene and its sequel well. The kids’ friends are never far away, should the kids need help, but help is very far away for the homeless man.
6. What’s the take on religion and/or God in this book? The characters in the book are Christians. One is the rebellious daughter of a minister and the other is grandson of that same minister. The kids stow away on the bus of a Bible salesman after he stops at the parish hall, where the haranguing minister and his officious wife are throwing a birthday party for the reluctant Mibs.
As far as I remember, God and religion are never explicit topics of discussion, but God comes up multiple times in Mibs’ internal thoughts. She says a quick silent thank-you to God in one scene, for instance, and in another, she hopes He’ll understand her choices better than the minister’s wife did.
The book doesn’t proselytize, so I don’t think it will be offensive to people who aren’t Christians. What’s more, I don’t think most readers will feel that the book portrays the Christian characters as unrealistically saintly. Although many of the characters are extremely kind-hearted and decent, they’re not angles. For example, the minister’s wife seems to think she’s intervening to help Mibs’ family in time of need, but she’s actually interfering in their lives in a high-handed and insensitive way. When Lill is fired, Lester commits petty larceny, snatching a banana cream pie from her boss and absconding with it. The children elaborately scam Lill into believing they phoned their parents from a motel and that it’s OK for Lester and Lill to give them a ride to the hospital in Kansas.
7. What about politics and government? No political issues in the book as far as I can tell.
8. Any gender issues whack you in the eye? No. On the positive side, I noticed that the female characters were strong and capable. On second thought, though, it’s possible that some readers will take umbrage at the perfection of Mibs’ mom. She’s a homemaker who is perfectly nurturing, perfectly patient, and perfectly tolerant, possibly because of her savvy, which is to be really good at things. She also seems to be perfectly balanced and content with her life until her husband is injured and her kids run away on the Bible bus, whereupon she becomes lovingly worried. But perhaps I only think that this character might get under people’s skin because I’m envious. I’d like to be perfectly good, perfectly balanced, and perfectly content, and perfectly loving, but I am most certainly am none of those things.
9. Any other important themes or issues crop up that you might want to discuss with your child?
The hard road to friendship. You might want to talk about the trials and tribulations the kids face on their road to friendship with each other.
The homeless alcoholic. It would probably be good to talk about the homeless man, who is an alcoholic and has given up on life.
The family’s economic situation at the end of the book. I have to bring this up, even though it may not be something you want to talk about with your kids. It bothered me that at the end of the book, Mibs’ family had no apparent source of income and yet seemed to be doing just fine, economically. This fazed me, but for all I know, some or even most kids might accept it without a second thought. I guess you could explain it away by saying this is a fantasy. Or maybe grandpa, whose savvy is making land, made some extra acres and the family sold them off. Or maybe in her first draft, the writer mentioned how the family was getting by, but her editor told her to take it out because it wasn’t necessary to explain that kind of thing in a fantasy.
10. Is the book especially challenging to read? No, this is a well-written book by a writer with a distinctive and confident voice. I read the first two paragraphs critically, then relaxed and let the driving to the author because I trusted that she knew where she was going and how to get there.
11. How’s the writing? What’s the writer’s major strength? What’s the writer’s Achilles heel? The writing is excellent. This writer has a distinctive voice; she even makes up her own words. She’s confident and dexterous from the very first sentence, good at description and dialogue, and knows when to show and when to tell. What’s more, she deftly weaves a story of personal growth and changing from a child to a teen into a fantasy-adventure, and that must be anything but easy to do. Writing this book must have been hard work, but the writer makes it seem effortless.
If she has an Achilles’ heel, it’s not the writing, but rather a few choices that rendered it momentarily hard for me, as an adult, to suspend my disbelief. For example, no one in the book has a cell phone (perhaps the book is set in the past?), the family thrives at end of book without apparent income, Lill doesn’t seem angry after she learns the kids have played a very nasty trick on her, and Lester and Lill don’t get into hot water for driving runaway kids across Nebraska and Kansas.
12. Might some people be upset by the spelling or grammar? No, they were just fine.